December 6, 1996.  My first chorus performance.

I opened the closet door, sliding aside shirts and pants on hangers trying to get out the tuxedo from behind all of my other clothes.  When Dr. Jeffs had announced a few weeks into the quarter that we would need a tuxedo for our chorus performance at the end of the quarter, I panicked a little.  I had no idea how to get a tuxedo or how much it would cost.  A minute later, though, Dr. Jeffs mentioned that the music department had a place where they ordered tuxedos for people who needed them.  I met with a music major who handled the tuxedo orders; I recognized her from chorus, she was a soprano, but I did not know her name.  She measured my waist and inseam and arm length, just like senior year of high school when I took Renee Robertson to the prom and had to rent a tuxedo.

A week ago, I went home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.  Mom wanted to see the tuxedo, and since it did not come with shoes, Mom told me we could get shoes while I was home.  I put on the tuxedo in my room, a little confused at first but eventually figuring out where to put the cummerbund and cufflinks and all these other accessories and articles of clothing that I did not normally wear.

I emerged from my room wearing the tuxedo, awaiting Mom’s reaction, wondering what she would find to make a big deal of this time.  “Look at you, all dressed up,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  Her tone quickly changed when she said, “The pants aren’t hemmed.  And they look a little bit too short.”

I looked down at the bottom of my pants, only now noticing the slightly ragged edge where the pants stopped at approximately ankle level.  I had failed; the show was just a week away, and there was not enough time to get new tuxedo pants.  “I never actually got my pants measured properly,” I said.  “The girl who ordered our tuxedos, she just asked if I knew what size pants I wore, and I told her 36-32, because that’s the size of pants I always buy.”  I paused before deciding to reveal more details of my failure.  “But people have told me before that my pants look a little too short.  Maybe they really are.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mom said.  “It probably won’t even show, if you’re going to be part of a whole choir.  And you’ll probably be in the back, since you’re tall.”

“That’s true,” I replied.

After I took off the tuxedo, Mom and I drove to Macy’s in Gabilan.  I hated shopping for shoes.  I had large, unusually shaped feet, and a few years ago I always seemed to have a hard time finding new shoes that fit me.  This traumatized me and made me afraid to buy shoes, because of all the hassle.  I wore a size 14 in athletic shoes and 13 in dress shoes, with shoes being more comfortable if they came in an extra wide option, although normal width shoes were usually not prohibitively uncomfortable.  The only black dress shoe they had that fit well had this weird scaly pattern along the surface of the shoe.  It looked like the shell of a shiny black turtle.

“Why is there that pattern on it?” I asked Mom.

“What pattern?” she said.

“This!” I replied, tracing my finger along the pattern on my shoes.

“Oh, that.  That’s what dress shoes look like.”

“What?  I’ve never seen dress shoes like that.”

“Dress shoes look like that.  It’ll be fine.  Besides, if we want anything else, we’ll have to special-order it, and it probably won’t be able to get to you in time.”

“I guess,” I sighed, resigning myself to the fact that these ugly shoes were probably the only option.  Maybe Mom was right, maybe dress shoes really do look like this, although I did not remember ever having seen shoes like these before.

I laid the tuxedo in the back of the Bronco; there would be time to change when we arrived. I had people to pick up; we had organized carpools a few days ago, and I got a car full of people I knew, which was fortunate since I did not know many people from chorus, at least not well.  Danielle Coronado and Jason Costello, were in my car, both of whom I had known since our first week at the University of Jeromeville.  We all lived on the same floor of the same dorm, Building C, when we were freshmen two years ago.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore, was also in my car; we sang together, along with Danielle, at my old church last year. After I picked everyone up, I headed east on Highway 100 toward the Drawbridge.

“How was everyone’s Thanksgiving?” Danielle asked.

“Nothing special,” Phil replied.  “Just went to my parents’ house.”

“I was at my grandma’s house in Arizona,” Jason said.  “There were a ton of people there, but it was really good.”

“Greg?” Danielle asked.  “Don’t you have a big Thanksgiving family gathering too, somewhere in the north state?”

“Bidwell.  But we didn’t do that this year,” I explained.  “My brother is in high school now, and he has basketball practice, so we couldn’t be away from home for that long.  So we just had a smaller Thanksgiving at home, just us, plus my grandparents on Mom’s side who live nearby.  Today is Grandma’s birthday, in fact.”

“How did that go?”

“It was okay.  I always used to like traveling to Bidwell, but it just hasn’t been the same since my great-grandma died.  She lived out on the edge of town on an old cattle ranch, and I used to love exploring in the hills near her house, but we don’t have that property anymore.”

“Did she pass recently?”

“It’s been a couple years.  Senior year of high school.  So how was your Thanksgiving?”

“I was just back home with my immediate family.  But it’s always kind of loud, since I come from a big family.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Probably like when I was a kid and all the cousins would be there.”

About ten miles east of Jeromeville, I took the exit for the Drawbridge and downtown Capital City.  “So why are we having the performance here instead of somewhere on campus?” I asked.  “Is it always here?  This is my first time in chorus, remember.”

“Usually the fall performance is here,” Danielle explained.  “Winter and spring are at the Main Theatre on campus.  But I don’t know why this one is here.”

“I think there are just a lot of other performances at the Main Theatre this time of year,” Jason explained.  “And they just couldn’t reserve the building for this night.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

A few days ago, someone had handed out a flyer with directions and a map.  I knew my way around Capital City enough that it seemed easy to find, but in the maze of one-way streets that was downtown Capital City, I got lost far more often than I should.  Complicating things further was a historic shopping district along a street that was now only open to pedestrians and light-rail commuter trains, which traveled the street at slow speed.  

In the middle of the pedestrian-only section was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the cathedral for the Catholic diocese for this part of the state and the location of this performance.   The large stone building, half the width of the entire block, was gray, with a large clock tower in front rising from the center and two smaller towers with crosses on top on either side.  A wide, low set of stone steps climbed about three feet to the entrances, three large sets of wooden double doors with statues of saints placed between them.  The middle set of doors was open.

The four of us arrived at 4:15 and walked in through the open door, through the lobby to the back of the church.  On the far side of the church, just in front of the altar, risers had been set up for the chorus to stand on.  The students who had arrived so far stood around and sat in pews, while the students from the orchestra set up their instruments.  At the side, a familiar face sat at a grand piano, organizing sheet music.  “Hey, Spencer,” I said, walking up to the piano.

“Greg!” Spencer said.  “I didn’t know you were in this.”

“Same,” I said.  “How long have you been doing piano for chorus?”  Spencer Grant lived downstairs from me freshman year, and he had gone to high school with Danielle.  I knew that he played piano, because I remembered him playing the piano in the common room of Building C many times, but I did not know that he was the accompanist for these performances.  Although I knew him to play piano, I would not have pictured him as the type to be in a performance like this.  Spencer always struck me as an odd combination of equal parts overconfident nerd and country hick, neither of which was a personality I associated with classical music.

“I started last year,” Spencer explained.  “They needed a pianist, I play piano.”

“That works.”

“Is this your first time in one of these?  I don’t remember seeing you here before.  Which group are you in?”

“Chorus.  I sing bass. And, yes, it’s my first time.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s great.  For a long time, when I was younger, I never liked singing in front of people, but it’s not so bad when I’m part of a group.”

“That’s true.”

“Section leaders, I need to see you for a minute!” I heard a voice say.  It took a few seconds to register that I was a section leader and I should be listening.  I looked over my shoulder and saw the section leader for the sopranos, a blonde girl named Carolyn, waving and calling out, “Section leaders!”

“I need to go see what that’s about,” I told Spencer.  “It was good seeing you.”

“You’re a section leader?” Spencer asked.  “And this is your first time in chorus?”

“Yeah.  No one else really wanted to do it.”

“A lot of people get talked into things that way.”

“I know.  I’ll see you later.”

I walked over to the other section leaders.  “I’m here,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“If anyone in your section doesn’t show up, be sure to let Dr. Jeffs or Sharon know as soon as possible.  If you didn’t bring your roster, here’s a copy of the program with all the names on it,” Carolyn said, as she gave the three of us programs.

I went up to the risers to stand with the other basses as I read through the program.  As the section leader, I had been responsible for submitting everyone’s names exactly as they wanted.  I listed myself as “Gregory James Dennison.”  Over the last several months, I had started using all three of my names when I had to fill things out, and I had changed my email name and signature to show all three names.  I remember passing the list around asking the basses how they wanted their names in the program, and my friend Scott Madison, whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship before I joined chorus, commented on my name.  “‘Gregory James Dennison?’  You’re using your full name now?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t know why, I just like the way it sounds.”

“Oooh.  Can I be ‘Scott R. Madison?’”

“Sure,” I said as Scott wrote “Scott R. Madison” on the form.

Phil Gallo took the form next.  “When I was in high school,” he said, “I was reading something about these gangsters from the 1920s, and they all had cool nicknames.  My friend started calling me Phil ‘The Fist’ Gallo.  He said it sounded like a Mafia name.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.

“I probably shouldn’t put that on the chorus program, though,” Phil said, writing “Philip T. Gallo” on the form.

“‘Philip T. Gallo?’” I said.  “The T stands for ‘The Fist?’”

“Haha!” Phil shouted.  “My middle name is Thomas, but I like that better.”

The dress rehearsal went well.  We had performed these pieces well enough that I knew my parts by then.  Since we had learned them out of order, though, we had only been performing them in their entirety from start to finish for a week.  We sang Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis, commonly called the Lord Nelson Mass, first.  I liked hearing it all together in order; it began quickly but in a minor key, specifically D minor; switched to D major for the Gloria, and changed to many other keys and tempos through the piece to fit the mood of the lyrics, ending with an upbeat Dona Nobis Pacem in D major.  I thought we sounded great.

After the Nelson Mass, the Chamber Singers did their part of the show.  Sharon, the teaching assistant for chorus, conducted this part of the show. We did not have to do anything during that time except stand quietly.  As one who had not studied classical music in detail, I was not sure exactly what the term chamber music even meant, what distinguished it from other music, but the Chamber Singers were a much smaller group than University Chorus.  When the Chamber Singers finished, the University Chorus performed Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a composition from the early twentieth century incorporating four existing British Christmas songs.  This one had been more difficult to learn at first, since I did not have a recording of it to sing along with, but we had rehearsed it enough that I knew it by now.


After the rehearsal, we had a break for dinner.  Despite being in the middle of a big city, with lots of interesting places around to eat, I walked down the street to McDonald’s.  I needed something simple and familiar.  Danielle walked there with me, and we saw about ten other people from chorus there too.  I ordered an Arch Deluxe and French fries, but no milkshake or Coca-Cola.  Someone had advised me not to have sweet drinks or dairy, since those might affect my voice.

We all had to be back by 7:45, and I made it in plenty of time.  Some of the audience had already arrived, and more trickled in as we waited to the side of the risers.  My mom and dad were making the drive up to see my performance, and eventually I saw them walk in.  It was close enough to the start of the performance that I could not go talk to them, but I made note of where they were sitting so I could find them quickly afterward.

At 7:55, the lights went dim, and the orchestra began playing the oddly familiar droning A note that the stringed instruments used to tune themselves.  After they finished, Dr. Jeffs stepped up to the podium and raised his baton.  The orchestra began playing as Dr. Jeffs conducted, and a few measures later, we began our choral part.  “Kyrie!  Kyrie eleison!” we sang.

I was surprisingly not nervous at all.  I had rehearsed this enough, and listened to the recording of the piece often enough, that I knew exactly what we were supposed to sound like.  The entire Mass was long, around forty minutes; I sang my part, just as we had been rehearsing, and I stood still and silent as the soloists did their parts.

As much as I enjoyed being in chorus, I never considered trying out for a solo.  I did not have the vocal talent to sing a solo.  The resounding deep voice of the bass soloist, the clear high tones of the tenor soloist, the warble of the alto and soprano soloists, all of those were sounds that my voice was not trained to make.  I was not a vocal soloist, but I was getting used to feeling like I at least belonged in the chorus.

The rest of the night went smoothly, just as we rehearsed.  I felt a little uncomfortable standing through the entire Chamber Singers performance, looking down on Sharon conducting the small group in front of us, but once we began Fantasia on Christmas Carols, I was sufficiently distracted that I no longer noticed my uncomfortably sore feet in the ugly shoes.  I wished I had a recording of this piece, because I really liked it; it was a different twist on classical Christmas music, beyond the same old songs I hear every year.

The performance ended, and we got a standing ovation from the audience.  The applause seemed to last a long time as each conductor and each group took bows and was recognized separately.  I was a part of that.  They were cheering for me.  I was not used to receiving applause, and it felt good.  I smiled.

Eventually, the lights came back up, and I saw people mingling with friends and family in the audience.  I turned to Phil, the nearest person from my carpool, and said, “I’m going to go say hi to my parents.  If Jason and Danielle are ready to drive back, tell them I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” Phil said.

I walked over to Mom and Dad; Mom saw me and gave me a hug.  “You look good in your tux,” she said.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“That was very nice,” Dad said.  “I’m glad you’re doing music again.”

“Me too,” I said.  “What are you guys doing tonight?”

“If it’s okay with you, we’re just going to go back to the motel without stopping at your house.  It’s getting late.  We’re staying at the Oak Tree Inn in Woodville, because everything in Jeromeville was either booked or really expensive.”

“Yeah, that sounds right for Jeromeville.”

“We can take you to breakfast in the morning.  Does that sound good?”

“Sure.  That works out perfectly, because there’s an after party, and I wanted to stop by.”

“Great!  We don’t want to get in the way when you’re hanging out with your friends.”

“Thanks.  So I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sounds good!”


I got home after dropping off the others in my car.  The after party was at someone’s house, not too far from my house, just off of Maple Drive on the other side of Coventry Boulevard.  I walked in and looked around.  I saw a number of familiar faces, but most of my closest friends in chorus were not here.  Danielle, Scott and Amelia, Jason, Phil, all absent.  Claire and Margaret were here, but Claire was a music major, so she knew all these people, and Margaret was her sister.

“Hey, Greg!” Claire said as Margaret waved.  “What did you think of the show?”

“It was great!  I’m glad it’s over, though.  One less thing to concentrate on as finals start.”

“I know!  This is your first chorus after-party, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Have fun!”

I walked around trying to start conversations.  Most of the conversations were about music things that I did not understand, and a lot of people were drinking.  I sat to the side making small talk with anyone who seemed interested in doing so, and I learned names of more of the people I had been singing with for three months but did not know well.  I eventually went home after a little over an hour, because this party did not really feel like my scene.

Breakfast with Mom and Dad the next morning went well.  We went to Denny’s, where I ate way too much, and Mom spent much of the time asking gossipy questions about other people in the show last night and pointing out if their noses were too big, or their eyes were too close together, or any other interesting thing to notice about them.  Mom did this kind of thing for everyone.  She also said that the Oak Tree Inn was very nice for the amount they paid.  For the rest of the years I lived in Jeromeville, my parents stayed at the Oak Tree Inn when they came to visit.  It was only ten miles away, and much less expensive than the alternatives.

I may have not fit in with the crowd at the after party, but I was starting to feel like I was actually a musician.  I had no plans to try out for a solo, but I enjoyed being in the chorus.  I would not be able to take chorus winter quarter, though.  Dr. Hurt, the professor I currently had for Introduction to New Testament, taught another class I wanted to take that met at the same time as chorus.  I would do everything I could to make sure I took chorus again spring quarter, though.  In addition to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Math Club, chorus was now one of my activities to be involved in, and I looked forward to when I could do it again in the future.  Even if it meant wearing those ugly uncomfortable shoes with the tuxedo.

The ugly shoes today, after spending a couple decades collecting dust in the bottom of my closet and not being worn. I still have them, for some reason.

Author’s note: Have any of you ever been part of a chorus or any sort of performing group? What was that like for you? Do any of you have any interesting stories about that?

Also, I thought about making the song for this episode be something from Fantasia on Christmas Carols, since I already shared a different part of the Nelson Mass in a different episode. But Fantasia on Christmas Carols is 11 minutes long and not broken into parts, and I am posting this episode in October and I have a strict personal policy not to share Christmas music when it’s not December. But if you really want to hear Fantasia on Christmas Carols, click here.

End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus.

“The mass has ended,” Father Bill said to the congregation at the Jeromeville Newman Center.  “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” many in the congregation replied.

Those of us in the church choir began singing and playing the closing song.  The choir had changed a bit from last year, since two people graduated, but most of the people I knew were still singing with us.  Danielle Coronado, a junior like me, and her sophomore sister Carly; Danielle was one of the first friends I made in Jeromeville in my freshman dorm.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore.  Heather Escamilla, a senior who was my neighbor last year before I got the new apartment and roommates.  Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell, two seniors who played guitars, who grew up in Santa Lucia County like me but went to Catholic school.  Two senior girls, Claire Seaver and Sabrina Murphy, and their freshman siblings whom I had just met today, Margaret Seaver and Chad Murphy.  A woman named Karen, not a student, who played piano.

After the last song, as we were packing up the instruments and sheet music, I asked Claire, “Can I look through the sheet music?  I have my audition for University Chorus on Tuesday, and I need to bring my own music to sing.”

“Sure!” Claire replied.  “I’m excited you’re gonna be in Chorus!”

“You are?  For sure?” Danielle asked, overhearing our conversation.  “Yay!”

“I will if they let me in,” I said.

“The audition isn’t hard,” Danielle explained.  “You’re pretty much just showing them that you can carry a tune.  And there are always more girls than guys, so if you’re a guy and you aren’t tone deaf, they’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, flipping through pages of sheet music looking for something I knew I could sing.  “I’m really nervous.”  I had no idea whether or not an audition of Catholic Church music would be frowned upon, given the reputation that large public universities sometimes had for being anti-Christian.  Christianity influenced much classical art and music, however, so I figured it would be okay, particularly if I sang something well known.  The songs were arranged alphabetically, so after about a minute I found “Amazing Grace.”  I said, “I think I can sing Amazing Grace.”  I had never sung it with the church choir, but the worship band at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had played it a few times, so I felt like I knew it well enough.

“Sounds good!” Claire said.

“Good luck,” Danielle added, patting me on the back.  “You’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

I drove home with the radio off, singing Amazing Grace to myself.  Growing up, the few occasions when I heard this song were always met with my mother saying that she hated it, particularly Joan Baez’ hippie-era recording of the song.  I mostly liked the lyrics, having recently learned about the history of the song.  The lyrics were written by an 18th-century British slave ship captain who turned to God to save him from a shipwreck, later turning away from the cruelty of the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist.  God had not saved me from anything that dramatic, but he certainly had saved me from my life of hopelessness, loneliness, and depression during sophomore year.


Two days later, I rode my bike to campus with the sheet music to Amazing Grace in my backpack, along with the usual binder that I would not be using today.  I rode all the way across campus to the east side of the Quad, with the Death Star building and Old North and South Halls on the left.  Just past the Quad, I passed the library on the right and a classroom building called Orton Hall on the left.  Beyond the library, East Quad Avenue ended in a T-intersection with Davis Drive, with the art, drama, and music buildings clustered together on the other side of the street.  I parked my bike and walked into the music building, looking for room 111.

The music building was small, with two floors.  I walked in through a lobby to a hallway extending to the left and right with a bulletin board in front of me.  I was not sure which side room 111 was on, but in a building of this size, it did not take long to find.

Room 111 was rectangular, with the entrance on the short side.  The wall to the left of me had a chalkboard along most of the length of the wall, with groups of five lines permanently imprinted on the board for writing music.  To the right were about a hundred and fifty seats, in rows which were each a step above the row in front of them, like stadium seats.  Two aisles divided the sections into thirds.  The ceiling and parts of the walls were off-white, covered in some kind of material that probably had to do with acoustics or soundproofing or something like that.  A thin woman, probably around thirty years old, with wavy hair dyed dark sat in a chair next to a slightly younger-looking man with a goatee sitting at a grand piano.

“Hi,” the woman said.  “I’m Sharon.  What’s your name?”

“Greg Dennison,” I said.

Sharon looked down at her list of students who would be auditioning today.  “Greg.  There you are.  What did you bring to sing today?”  I opened my backpack and gave her the sheet music of Amazing Grace, which she handed to the pianist.  “Amazing Grace,” she said.  “In F-major, so it starts C-F.”  Turning back to me, Sharon said, “Whenever you’re ready, Greg.”

The pianist played a C and an F, the first two notes of the song.  I took a deep breath and began singing.  “A-ma-zing grace, how sweet the sound.”  I took a breath and continued, “That saved a wretch like me!”  Another breath.  “I once was lost, but now am found.”  Another breath.  “Was blind, but now I see.”

Sharon stopped me.  “That’s good,” she said.  “Welcome to University Chorus.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  Danielle was right; this audition was not difficult at all.  I had had nothing to worry about.

“Are you Baptist, by any chance?” the pianist asked.

“No,” I said, a little confused.  “I’m Catholic.  I sing in my church choir.”

“You kind of sing like a Baptist,” the pianist explained, demonstrating how my voice tended to not quite hit the pitch of some long notes and then quickly adjust.  Hopefully I had not done something wrong.  If this was not good enough for the way I was supposed to sing in University Chorus, I would do my best not to sing that way.

“Interesting,” I said, not particularly wanting to have that discussion.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So I’ll see you Friday at 12:10?” Sharon asked.

“Yes!”


After my audition, I went to the basement of the campus store to get my textbooks for the quarter.  Chorus was technically a two-unit class called Music 144, graded pass/no-pass.  There were two thin books of sheet music on the shelf for Music 144, along with a compact disc labeled as optional which I did not buy.  The longer of the two pieces for chorus was called Missa in Angustiis, by Joseph Haydn, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass.  It was first performed right at the same time that Horatio Nelson had defeated Napoleon’s forces, in the late 18th century, and it had always been associated with that event.  The other book of sheet music was called Fantasia on Christmas Carols, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912.  I did not know that name.

Thursday, September 26, was the first day of classes.  As was often the case, Thursday was a light day for me, with only my discussion section for New Testament.  We had no class material to discuss, since the first lecture would not meet until tomorrow, so the teaching assistant just introduced the class and what we would be doing in the discussion section.  I was going back to the part-time job I had for part of last year, tutoring lower-division math classes for the Learning Skills Center on campus ten hours per week, and with only one class on Thursday, I could make myself available for tutoring on Thursdays.

My class schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was much busier, with one math class and the New Testament lecture in the morning and another math class in the afternoon.  In between, chorus met from 12:10 until 1:00.  The room was about half full when I arrived on that first Friday.  Sharon, whom I had met at my audition, sat in the front at the piano, with a balding middle-aged man in a suit also in the front of the room.  I found a seat near the right aisle and waited for class to start.  “Greg!” a familiar voice behind me said.  I turned around to see Phil Gallo from church.

“Hey, Phil,” I said.

As I looked at the people around me and watched the rest of the chorus trickle in through the door, I recognized a few other familiar faces.  Jason Costello from my freshman dorm, who also goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Danielle, Claire, and Margaret from the church choir.  A couple of faces I recognized from the dining hall freshman year.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye from JCF.  Scott saw me looking around and waved; I waved back.

Sharon stood up and spoke, introducing herself as the TA for the class.  She would be the contact person for most of our concerns.  She introduced the balding man as Dr. Thomas Jeffs, the professor who would be conducting the chorus.  Dr. Jeffs then introduced himself with a long list of accolades and prestigious choral groups that he had been a part of over his career.  As one with little knowledge of classical music, most of that meant nothing to me, other than that the accomplishments sounded impressive.

Next, a blonde girl walked to the front.  “Hi!  My name is Carolyn Parry, and I’m the section leader for the sopranos.  The section leader for altos couldn’t be in chorus this quarter, and the section leader for basses graduated.  So, altos and basses, take five minutes to find the others in your section, and decide who will be section leader.”

I had no idea who the other basses were.  I noticed that the guys mostly seemed to sit in the middle, with the girls mostly on the sides, but with a few girls near the aisle in the middle, possibly because there was not enough room for all the girls on the sides.  “Are you a bass?” one older-looking guy sitting next to me asked.

“I am,” I replied.  Apparently the seat I chose was coincidentally in the bass section.

“No one really wanted to be section leader,” a guy sitting behind me said, “so we were wondering if you’d want to do it.”

Wow.  My first day of University Chorus, and I’m already being asked to be section leader.  “What exactly does the section leader do?” I asked.

“Mostly just take attendance,” the guy who asked if I was a bass said.  “Just pass around a sign-in sheet, everyone makes sure they sign it, and then you give it to Sharon.”

“I guess I can do that,” I said.  I hoped that it was actually that simple, and that the other basses were not hazing the new guy or anything like that.

After the selection of section leaders, the actual rehearsal began.  Dr. Jeffs told us to turn to the Credo in the Lord Nelson Mass.  Each section practiced a few measures, then we sang them together.  This Credo seemed difficult to sing, because instead of harmonizing, it was sung like a round, with the sopranos and altos starting, and the tenors and basses coming in a measure later.  But unlike round songs I knew as a child, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the tenors and basses sang in a different key than the sopranos and altos, which created some very non-intuitive harmonies.  I had taken piano lessons for three years as a child, so I knew how to read music, but I quickly discovered that I was not very good at it.  I could follow along with sheet music when someone else sang or played, but I found it difficult to learn an unfamiliar song, particularly one with four part harmony, just by reading sheet music.  By the end of the class, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was not good enough for University Chorus.  But, as we were leaving, Dr. Jeffs said something that changed the whole experience for me.

“It’s about time to go,” Dr. Jeffs said.  “Section leaders, be sure to turn in your sign-in sheet for your section.  And, remember, if you don’t have the sheet music yet, go get that.  And they have a CD of the Haydn in the bookstore.  I will see you Monday.”

As soon as I left the building, I immediately headed to the campus store.  I remembered seeing that compact disc stacked there next to the books of sheet music, labeled as optional, and after today, I realized that I needed it.  I had no trouble following sheet music when a song was playing, so I suspected that I would be able to learn my part better by listening.

The first meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for the year was that night; that was when we performed the Scooby-Doo skit.  The next morning, I put the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass in my stereo and pressed Play.  I skipped to track 5, the Credo.  I knew enough from being Catholic that a Mass is the words from a church service set to music.  Although the Lord Nelson Mass was in Latin, I could understand what the words meant, since I knew the words to the Catholic Mass in English, and I studied Spanish, which evolved from Latin, for three years in high school.  The Credo was the part called the Nicene Creed in English, beginning with “I believe in one God,” or “Credo in unum Deum” in Latin.  The sections of this Mass appeared to be named for the first couple of words from each part.

I sang along while following the sheet music.  The women’s parts seemed louder than the men’s parts on the recording, but if I turned the stereo up loud enough, I could hear the bass.  Not only that, but I was able to follow along with the bass part on the sheet music.  I played the track a second time, this time singing along.  I remembered how, yesterday in class, Dr. Jeffs had reminded us to trill the R in “credo” at the beginning.  On my sheet music, where the words “cre- do” were written under the notes, I wrote “crrrre- do” underneath it, so I would remember to trill the R.  I started the song over and sang along.

My roommate Shawn came home in the middle of the song.  He poked his head in the bedroom door and asked, “What are you listening to?”

“Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass,” I explained.  “It’s one of the pieces we’re doing for chorus this quarter.”

“Oh yeah,” Shawn said.  “You’re in chorus.”

“It’s my first time doing it.”

“How’s it going so far?”

“I learned really quickly that I think I’m going to do better listening to the piece over and over again while I practice my part.  I can read music a little bit, but I don’t learn new music very well that way.  So I bought the CD.”

“Makes sense,” Shawn said.  He crossed the hall to the bathroom, and I closed the bedroom door and sang through the Credo two more times.

For the rest of that quarter, I listened to the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass over and over and over again.  When I was first learning a part of the Mass, I would follow along with the sheet music.  After that, as I was learning the part better, I would put the CD on while I was doing math homework or talking to girls in chat rooms, and I would sing along to my part.  This way, I would just learn it by performing, much as how I learned the words and tune to songs on the radio or on my other CDs by listening over and over again and singing along sometimes.

Something odd happened a few days after I got the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass.  I was sitting at my computer, at the desk under the bed loft that I had bought from Claire, doing homework for Advanced Calculus while the Lord Nelson Mass was playing.  I took a break, looking up from my textbook for about a minute.  Then I stood up and turned toward my bookshelf, about to look for a dust rag, when I realized what was happening.  In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I was back home working in a bookstore where the owner always played classical music.  The sound of classical music coming out of my stereo triggered some dormant muscle memory in my brain, memories of when the bookstore was empty of customers and I walked around to dust the shelves.  I laughed when I realized where this thought had come from.  I mentioned it to Danielle at the next rehearsal, and she laughed too, having remembered my stories from working at the bookstore that summer.

Although I loved listening to music, I always had a complicated relationship with performing music.  We had an old, out-of-tune piano in our living room at home, which had belonged to Dad’s grandmother, and I just liked playing around on it, but Mom always made a big deal of me playing piano and wanted me to perform for relatives and family friends.  I quit after three years of piano lessons in elementary school because I was self-conscious.  I never thought of performing music in front of others again until last year, when Danielle invited me to choir practice.  Now I was part of a chorus that would have to perform in front of a large audience at the end of the quarter, in a less comfortable environment than a church service, and once I got used to how things worked at University Chorus, I was excited about this.  The last year had been a time of great change and growth for me, and more changes were coming.

August 10, 1996. One thousand red roses would not be quite enough.

I did not grow up attending concerts, and I do not know why, considering how I have always loved listening to music.  I just assumed that going to concerts was something that rich people did, or adults who had cars to drive to wherever the bands played.  My parents went to concerts; Dad saw the Grateful Dead many times, and my parents went together to see bands of their generation who were still touring, like Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  

The University of Jeromeville hosts a large open house festival event called the Spring Picnic every April.  In the days leading up to the Spring Picnic freshman year, I heard people talking about a band called Lawsuit that would be playing there.  I listened to their show, and I was blown away.  I had never heard music like this before.  Lawsuit had ten members: in addition to the usual vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, they also had a second drummer who played congas and bongos, and several horn players.  Many of the members of Lawsuit grew up in Jeromeville, and they had a bit of a following locally.

After I watched Lawsuit at the following Spring Picnic, sophomore year, I signed up for their mailing list.  That was a little over three months ago, and I had been getting postcards and emails about upcoming shows.  One of the flyers a few months ago mentioned something called One Thousand Red Roses, a benefit concert to raise money for the Art Center in Jeromeville.  I had no strong feelings either way about the Art Center, but I did have strong feelings about seeing Lawsuit, especially since the show was on a Saturday after a week when I had absolutely no plans.  I went out and bought a ticket as soon as they were on sale.

As the show approached, it was difficult to hide my excitement and anticipation.  Two days before the show, I was at Bible study, and as people were arriving, someone made small talk by asking what everyone was doing for the weekend.

“I’m going to see Lawsuit!” I exclaimed.

“Lawsuit, the band?” Amelia Dye asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve seen them at the last two Spring Picnics, and I really like them.”

“I’ve heard them before.  Scott has their album.”

“I remember that.  We were talking about Lawsuit at that party at your house.”

“They’re good,” Ramon Quintero said.  “I saw them at the Spring Picnic once.”

“Who’s Lawsuit?” Tabitha Sasaki asked.

“A local band,” I explained.  “Their music is… well, hard to describe.  It’s like rock with horns.  But not really.  Kind of like jazz sometimes too.  And reggae.”

“Interesting.  Have fun!”


On the corner of Coventry Boulevard and G Street, adjacent to the large park where I had watched fireworks on July 4, stood a small building called the C.J. Davis Art Center.  In this building, named for a local philanthropist who was instrumental in its founding, children and adults took classes in various forms of art, music, and dance.  Among those heavily involved in the local arts scene in Jeromeville was the Sykes family, and the siblings, siblings-in-law, and cousins of this large family included several members of Lawsuit.  The band put on a concert every summer, called One Thousand Red Roses, on a temporary stage in the parking lot of the Art Center, to raise money for it.

Although I knew from reading the CD booklet and the band’s website that some of the members of Lawsuit were related, I learned much more about the Sykes family from a tragic occurrence a few months ago, when a Sykes sibling not in the band died in a car accident.  The obituary in the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper mentioned much about the family’s philanthropic and artistic endeavors, including Lawsuit.

The show began at eight o’clock; I left my apartment at 7:15, since I did not know what to expect in terms of crowds.  I also walked, since I did not know how hard it would be to find a place to park, and the Art Center was only about a mile from my apartment.  The weather had been warm, but it was just starting to cool off as the sun sank lower in the sky.  I was sweating a little as I arrived at the Art Center, but if this concert was similar to Lawsuit’s performances at the Spring Picnic, I expected to get sweaty as the night went on, with people standing and moving around to the music.

A temporary fence around the parking lot had been installed so that only ticketed guests could see the stage.  I handed my ticket to the person at the door and walked inside.  About a hundred guests were already mingling about the floor in front of the stage; there were no seats, as I suspected.  Roadies were setting up the stage, which was already full of guitars, drums, horns, microphones, amplifiers, lights, and speakers.  The back of the stage appeared to be a chain link fence, decorated with banners and road signs.  A large fan blew air across the stage, probably to keep the band cool on the warm Jeromeville night surrounded by hot equipment.

Since I still had time before the show started, I walked over to the merchandise table and looked at the band’s t-shirts.  Most of them had the band’s name accompanied by some sort of random drawing, which apparently had some significance that I was not aware of.  I pointed to one shirt, light gray, with a drawing on the front of a surprised-looking man with his hat falling off.  On the back was the name of the band, LAWSUIT, accompanied by a collage of newspaper headlines containing the word “lawsuit.”  That was clever.  “Do you have that one in an extra large?” I asked.

“Let me check,” the man behind the table replied.  He turned around, looking through boxes, for about a minute, then turned back toward me.  “We’re out of that one in extra large,” he said.  “We have some of the others in extra large.  And I know we’re getting a new shipment in soon, so if you want to pay for it now, and leave your name and address, we can mail it to you.”

“That’ll work,” I said, a little disappointed but hopeful that the shirt would arrive soon.  He got out a spiral notebook and wrote “Gray Headline Shirt XL” and handed it to me.  I wrote my name and address and handed it back to him along with the money.

I looked back toward the stage, where instruments were being tuned and amplifiers were being connected.  I was not sure if the people on stage were band members or crew, since I did not recognize all of the band members by face.  I would have recognized Paul Sykes, the lead singer, from the two other times I saw them play live, but he was not currently on stage.

By the time eight o’clock approached, the crowd had grown in size considerably, as several hundred people and their alcoholic beverages packed into that fenced-off parking lot.  I was starting to feel a little bit crowded by the people around me on all sides.  Eventually, about fifteen minutes after the show was scheduled to start, a master of ceremonies walked on stage and gave a short speech about the C.J. Davis Art Center, its importance in the community, and the generosity of the Sykes family.  He finished his speech by announcing, “The name of this band is Lawsuit!”

The crowd began cheering wildly; I joined in, clapping.  The ten members ran up the stairs on the side of the stage, one by one, and took their positions, getting their instruments ready.  They began the show the same way they did when I saw them in April at the Spring Picnic, by playing the music from the song “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang, with Paul rapping, his lyrics fast enough to be barely intelligible to me.  After Paul rapped about Lawsuit not being a rap band, the hand drummer began playing a faster rhythm, and the rest of the band segued into a song of their own called “Thank God You’re Doing Fine.”  This had been the first Lawsuit song I ever heard when I saw them at the Spring Picnic freshman year, and to this day it is still my favorite song of theirs.  Toward the end of the song, I started mouthing some of the words: “When it comes to the end of the world, you’ve got only one thing left to do, and that’s thank God, thank God you’re doing fine.”  I had heard the song dozens, if not hundreds, of times by then, and it just occurred to me in that moment that Lawsuit may have been making an intentional allusion to R.E.M., who famously sang nine years earlier that “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

About half an hour into the show, I realized that I only knew about half the songs they were playing.  Lawsuit had five albums, and I only had the two most recent ones.  I did not know if the unfamiliar songs they played were from older albums, or originally by other artists, or new songs they had written but not recorded yet.  Some of the unfamiliar songs sounded delightfully catchy, whereas others were just strange.  One of the songs was about a couch, told from the first-person perspective of the couch.  The crowd’s enthusiastically positive reaction to hearing that song made me feel somewhat like the song was a big inside joke, and I was the only person there who was not in on it.

Midway through the show, as one song entered, Paul and another band member began bantering about the daytime TV drama Days Of Our Lives, and a few of the instrumentalists played the beginning of the show’s theme song.  Yet another inside joke I was not part of, I supposed; I associated Days Of Our Lives with old women and housewives, not the kind of people who were in one of the coolest bands ever.  After that, they transitioned into an uptempo song about a girl who had an ugly butt.  I laughed out loud when I heard them say that the first time.  This band was amazing.  They had everything… they had songs that sounded like regular pop-rock, songs that sounded more like punk with horns, songs that had more of a jazz-swing beat… and songs about an ugly butt.  Why did this band not get more attention in the mainstream?  Sometimes, their monthly postcards with information about upcoming shows said at the bottom, “Don’t forget to bug your radio stations!”  This band was better than a lot of stuff on the radio.

After the song about the ugly butt, one of the horn players apologized to anyone who actually had an ugly butt who might have been offended by that song. Then another of the horn players, I think she was Paul’s sister, or maybe sister-in-law, sang the first verse of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as a segue into “Useless Flowers,” a song of theirs that I knew well with Paul back on vocals.  The last line of Useless Flowers was “All the money I failed to make can’t buy me love,” with those last four words sung and played on the exact same notes, in the exact same rhythm, as the classic Beatles song of that title.  I always thought that was a clever reference.

The concert continued for what seemed like a blissful eternity.  The other two times I had seen Lawsuit in person were at the Spring Picnic, where bands only played for around 40 minutes before clearing the stage to prepare for the next band playing.  But this show was all Lawsuit, and it lasted for over two hours.  As much as I enjoyed the two hours of music, though, this long concert carried a downside: the people around me became progressively more drunk, raucous, and clumsy as the night went on.  I was just standing there, trying to enjoy the music, and I got bumped by the people around me numerous times.  I had moved progressively farther from the stage as the night went on, as I got jostled and crowded out of my spot, and someone’s spilled beer had splashed on my shirt.  And although the weather cooled somewhat after the sun went down, the stage area still radiated with the body heat of hundreds of concertgoers, and I still felt a little sticky and sweaty.

Toward the end of the night, Paul sang and the band performed a song where the character in the song was trying to convince a girl of his desirability, punctuated by the more direct phrase “let’s go to bed.”  This prompted cheers from the drunks around me.  After that song ended, Paul gestured for everyone to get quiet.  After about ten seconds of silence, he looked upward, as if toward heaven, and shouted into the microphone, “Hey, Dave!  This one’s for you!”  That was nice, I thought, a fitting tribute to his brother who had died in the accident.  Then, as the band began playing “Picture Book Pretty,” a song I knew from one of their albums I had, I wondered how such a loud shout was legal, considering that Jeromeville had strict laws about loud parties.  Maybe the law didn’t apply to events put on by those who were well-connected locally, like the Sykeses.  The title of this annual benefit concert came from a line from this song: “One thousand red roses would not be quite enough, ‘cause she’s picture book pretty.”  The album version of the song said “one dozen red roses,” but they always changed it to “one thousand” in live performances.

After Picture Book Pretty ended, Paul said, “Thank you so much!  Don’t forget to support local arts and music!  We have a mailing list and merchandise at that table in the back.”  As he pointed toward the merchandise table, he continued, “Thank you, and good night!”  The band began filing off the stage as the crowd cheered loudly.  I started to step backward away from the stage to head home when I noticed that no one else was leaving; everyone just kept cheering loudly.  I wondered if they knew that something more would happen after the last song.  This felt like another of those moments where the band and most of the others here were in on some inside joke that I was not aware of.

Of course, this was not some Lawsuit inside joke; the crowd wanted an encore.  It was standard practice at the end of a concert like this to cheer loudly until the band came back out to play another song or two.  But I had never been to an actual concert, so I knew none of this.  The band did come back out after about two minutes; the drums, bass, and horns began playing a low, quick, repetitive melody.  Paul began rapping atonally about Albert Einstein, combining historical facts about Einstein’s life with whimsical comments about his hair and silly statements about Einstein playing football and baseball.  This was a strange song.  They followed this with one more song that I did not recognize and ended the show for real this time.

The people around me mingled and talked, and some headed toward the merchandise table.  I noticed some of the band members walking around talking to fans.  That would be fun, to meet the band.  I looked around to see if Paul was anywhere nearby, and I saw him talking to a few other people in front of the stage.  I worked my way over to where Paul was standing and politely waited my turn.  After a few minutes, the people in front of me left, and Paul turned to me.  “Hi, there!” Paul said.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a flyer about upcoming shows that I had taken from the merchandise table before the show started, along with a black ballpoint pen that I carried around in my pocket sometimes.  “May I have your autograph?” I asked.

“Sure!” Paul replied, smiling.  He took the flyer and pen, turned the flyer to the blank side, and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Greg,” I said.

Paul began writing.  “G-R-E-G?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

Paul scribbled a few things on the paper and handed it back to me.  “Here you go.”

“Thanks so much,” I said.  “It was a great show.  I had fun.”

“Thanks!  I hope to see you at another one soon.”

“I will!”

I stepped away as Paul turned to talk to other people waiting for him.  I looked at the back of my flyer to see what he wrote:


To Greg-
Have fun!

Love,
Paul Sykes


The name on the bottom was barely legible, like most celebrity signatures.  But I know who it was and where I got it.  Later that night, when I got home, I retired the pen Paul touched and never used it again, keeping the pen and autographed flyer in a box so that I could remember the time I saw Lawsuit live and met Paul Sykes.

I looked around and noticed that some people had begun trickling out of the gated stage area, headed home as well, while others were still standing around with their friends.  I had met Paul, I had no other accomplishments to complete that night, so I began walking toward the gate.

In keeping with the One Thousand Red Roses theme, someone stood at the gate and handed a long-stemmed red rose to everyone leaving the show.  I took mine and walked back down Coventry Boulevard toward my apartment, on an excited high from the amazing live music I saw that night.  The walk home took about fifteen minutes, and it was mostly quiet and peaceful, since the people leaving the concert were dispersing in multiple directions.  It was around eleven at night, and a cool breeze had picked up, cool enough that I would not normally be outside wearing shorts in this temperature.  I was not uncomfortable, though, because at the concert I was surrounded by other sweaty people, and now I was moving, expending energy to walk back to my apartment.

I unlocked the door and took off my shirt, which smelled of sweat and other people’s beer, and put on a new shirt. Then I walked to the kitchen.  I was not sure what to do with a cut rose.  I had seen people put flowers in vases of water.  I was not classy enough to have a vase, particularly since I pronounced vase to rhyme with “base,” not like “vozz.”  I found an empty 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola in the box I used to hold recyclables, rinsed it out, filled it water to make a makeshift vase, and put the rose inside.  I then sat down at the computer, because it was not particularly late and I was used to staying awake much later than this.  I typed an email to a girl in New Zealand whom I had met on the Internet recently, replying to her email about classes and telling her about the concert.

Paul had told me that he hoped to see me at a show again soon.  I hoped to go to a show again soon.  Lawsuit played all up and down the state, but they played in this area fairly often.  They also played in Bay City frequently, still within a day trip distance.  I would definitely be watching the monthly flyers I got in the mail for shows I might be able to go to.  And I would tell people about this band.  Once that t-shirt I bought tonight came back in stock, I would wear it around campus and to class and to the grocery store, so I could tell people about Lawsuit, and be identified as a Lawsuit fan to any other Lawsuit fans I might meet.  That plan did not get off the ground as I had hoped, for reasons including the t-shirt taking two months to finally arrive.  But I tried.  I had already told one person on the other side of the globe about this band, so that counts for something, and Lawsuit is still in my music collection and playlists today.


Author’s note: Sorry this was a day late!

July 27-29, 1996. Questioning my spiritual home.

The Dennison family got cable television in 1984.  I was in second grade, and we now got thirty channels with very clear pictures. This was a vast improvement over the six channels we got before, two of which were full of static and one of which was in Spanish.  I grew up watching MTV in the 1980s, and my mother absorbed knowledge of much of the popular music of that day.  However, my mother also had the habit of not paying close attention to lyrics and misunderstanding the meanings of songs.  To her, for example, “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper was about dancing, rather than masturbation, and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen was a proud patriotic anthem, not a criticism of the United States government’s past involvement in Vietnam and subsequent neglect of veterans.

In 1996, after getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and making new friends there, I discovered the new world of Christian rock music.  Bands like DC Talk and Jars of Clay filled two of the three discs on my CD changer, and I copied both albums to cassettes to listen to in the car.  A few of those Christian rock hits were getting played on mainstream secular radio stations, and in an attempt to connect with me, Mom would tell me whenever she heard one of these songs.  Mom would also tell me whenever she heard some other song that had a lyric that sounded religious and ask if that song was by one of my Christian bands, despite the fact that many of these words had meanings in ordinary English and were used by non-Christian musicians as well.  No, Mom, “Salvation” by the Cranberries is not Christian music.

My family had recently set up Internet access, and Mom had made the humorous email name “Peg Not Bundy” for herself, in reference to Peg Bundy, the wife from TV’s Married With Children, and the fact that her name was Peggy also.  I opened an email from Peg Not Bundy and read it.


From: peg_notbundy@aolnet.com
To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Sat, 27 Jul 1996 09:33 -0700
Subject: Re: hi

I finally have a few minutes to sit and write.  It has been such a busy week!  I’ve had a lot of work to do.  Today Mark has a baseball game, so I have to take him to that, then Cody is coming over afterward p[bdfg6t7sdvg78ysvd (Davey says hi).


Davey was a cat, and that gibberish meant that he climbed on the keyboard as Mom was typing.  This was not the first time this had happened, but it always made me smile when I read that in Mom’s emails.  I continued reading.


I heard a song on the radio today that I kind of like.  The chorus said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God.”  Do you know that song?  Is that one of your Christian bands?  How is your class going?  One more week, right?  Talk to you later.  Love, Mom


I replied to the email and told Mom that the song was “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla, and it was definitely not Christian music.  If Mom had listened to the next line, she would know that the song actually said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  A real Christian band would not be referring to God as “her”; this would be extremely unpopular with listeners of mainstream Christian music, although the idea was not unheard of among liberal feminists in the Church.

Liberal feminists in the Church were not hard to find in a university town like Jeromeville.  I attended Mass at the Jeromeville Newman Center, and one time last year, before I was part of the choir, I remember we sang a familiar song called “On Eagle’s Wings.”  Since its publication in 1979, this had been a popular song for Catholic Masses; I had heard and sung it many times growing up at Our Lady of Peace Church.  The line at the end of the chorus said “and hold you in the palm of his hand,” with God doing the holding, but the first time I heard it at Newman, it sounded like they were saying something a little different, almost like “palm of her hand.”  Some time later, when I got to church, I looked at the sign that had the numbers of the day’s songs in the songbook, and next to the number for On Eagle’s Wings was a female ♀ symbol.  Just like the time before, the choir sang female pronouns for God.  I noticed as the year went on that they would occasionally change other lyrics to refer to God in the feminine. I was a little surprised at this, because in my experience, the radical feminists and hippies who used female pronouns for God were not Catholic.



The day after Mom asked about Counting Blue Cars, I drove myself to church.  I usually carpooled with Heather Escamilla, who lived in the same apartment complex as me, but she had blown off church to spend the weekend at the Great Blue Lake with her boyfriend.  I heard Counting Blue Cars on the way to church and promptly changed the station.  Hearing that song reminded me that we were singing On Eagle’s Wings with feminine pronouns today, and this still made me uncomfortable.  God did not have a gender or biological sex in the way that humans understand the concept, but making a point of using feminine pronouns in church, going against centuries of church tradition, just seemed arrogant to me.  The Bible was the Word of God, and if masculine pronouns were good enough for those who wrote it, why are they suddenly not good enough for Jeromevillians in 1996?  Changing God’s gender felt like a slippery slope toward changing God’s teachings.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire, the unofficial leader of the choir, said as I approached the other choir members.  “How are you?”

“Doing well.  One more week of class.”

“Nice!  Are you taking a class second session?”

“No.  I’m just going to hang out.  And I’m moving at the start of September.”

“Me too.  I’m getting an apartment with Sabrina and one other girl we know.  I’m going to have my own room for the first time!  I’m not going to need my bed loft!  Do you know anyone who wants to buy a bed loft?”

“Actually,” I said, “I might be interested.  I’m going to be sharing a room.  How much?”

“I was thinking fifty dollars.  We can talk about it later.  I’ll let you know.”

“Sounds good!”

I walked to my usual music stand, next to Ellen Stark.  “Hi,” I said.  “How are you?”

“Good!  We’re taking a family vacation this week, up to Portland to visit relatives.  I’m excited about that!”

“Fun!  I have my final exam on Thursday.”

“Good luck!  I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“When do you go back to California?”

“Middle of September.  So I’ll still be here for a while.”

“Good,” I said.

Claire whispered at all of us to be quiet as Father Bill and Sister Mary Rose walked up to begin Mass.  On Eagle’s Wings was the offertory song, sung about halfway through while the offering plates were being passed.  I had sung it with feminine pronouns before, because that was just the way things were done at the Jeromeville Newman Center, but today, with Counting Blue Cars still on my mind, it felt especially wrong.

“And hmm will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” I sang, purposely making the pronoun unintelligible.  “And hold you in the palm… of mmm hand.”  I looked at Ellen next to me to see if she noticed; she was looking straight forward, not at me.  Probably not.

After Communion, as Father Bill and others were making announcements, I noticed Lisa, another singer from our choir who sang at the early service during the school year, coming out of the back room with Sister Mary Rose.  Lisa walked back to her music stand.  I wondered what she was doing; she had been singing with us just a few minutes ago, and I did not notice her step away.  We sang the final song, and after Father Bill dismissed the congregation, we began putting our sheet music and stands away.  Lisa accidentally knocked over her stand, then almost tripped over it trying to pick up the scattered sheet music.

“Sorry!” Lisa laughed.  “There was a lot of leftover wine today.”

“What?” I asked, certain that I had misheard.

“After Communion, Sister Mary Rose and I were finishing the bread and wine,” Lisa explained.

“You have to eat and drink the rest of it?” Matt Jones asked.

“Yeah,” Lisa explained.  “You can’t just throw it away, it’s the Body and Blood of Christ!”

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Matt said.

“I know sometimes I need to get a little tipsy from the wine to finish the last song,” Lisa said, laughing.  Matt and Claire laughed with her, while I just stood, shocked at this blasphemy I was hearing.  I had recently read in First Corinthians where Paul wrote that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”  My understanding was that, unlike many other Christians, Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine.  This is why, as Lisa said, it could not just be thrown away.

Joking about getting drunk off of the blood of Christ had no place in a house of worship.  At this point, though, I did not expect much reverence from a congregation that prioritized being good feminists and calling God She over church teaching.  I immediately walked over to Sister Mary Rose.

“Hi, Greg,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “How are you?”

“Can I talk to you sometime?” I asked.  “I have some things I’ve been thinking about.”

“Sure.  What’s your schedule like this week?”

“I have class Tuesday and Thursday from 12 to 2, and Wednesday from 10 to 2.  I’m free tomorrow.”

“How about you just come by here tomorrow afternoon?  Around one o’clock, maybe?”

“That sounds good.  I’ll see you then.”

“Yes.  See you tomorrow.”


I decided to ride my bike to the Newman Center the next afternoon to talk to Sister Mary Rose, instead of driving.  That way I could continue on a recreational bike ride afterward.  The ride took about ten minutes, but it was hot enough that I was starting to sweat when I arrived.  I locked my bike and walked into the church office, slowly and carefully.

“Hi, Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Take a seat.”  I sat in a chair across from her at her desk, trying to get comfortable, as she asked, “So what’s going on?”

I took a deep breath, and then another one, trying to make the words come out right.  “When we sing songs like ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ with the feminine pronouns, that isn’t right to me.  It’s like you’re putting politics above church teaching and the Word of God.”

“Well,” Sister Mary Rose replied, “how do you think you would feel if you were a woman?”

I paused.  It seemed like she was setting me up to make me feel guilty for being a white male, a standard tactic used by liberals to make conservatives look bad.  I did not feel guilty for being who I was, but I also did not want to start an argument or say anything that Sister Mary Rose would find offensive.  “I don’t know,” I replied.  “I would probably notice that God is usually spoken of as if he were male, but I would like to think that I would submit to Scripture and Church teaching on the subject.”

“Well, God is not a man.  God has both male and female attributes.”

“I agree.”

“Then why is this a problem for you?”

“It just feels…” I shifted my position in my seat.  “Kind of arrogant, like you know better than hundreds of years of Church teaching, and the people who wrote the Bible.”

“Church teaching has changed.  And so has language.  It was normal at one time to use a word like ‘mankind’ to mean all men and women, but today we would say ‘humankind.’”

I nodded, but inwardly cringed.  I thought “humankind” was kind of a dumb word, when “mankind” did just as well with fewer letters and syllables.  It had only been twenty-seven years since Neil Armstrong’s famous use of the word “mankind,” and the language had already changed?  I remember being home at Christmas and noticing that this year’s songbook at Our Lady of Peace had replaced the word “mankind” in one of the later verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with “humankind,” breaking the rhythm by adding an extra syllable.  Forcibly changing the language like that felt too much like George Orwell’s 1984 to me.

However, Sister Mary Rose brought up an important point: I was not a woman.  I did not know how it felt to live in a culture that historically treated women as second-class citizens, and while women had made a great deal of progress toward equality, old habits and scars remained at times.

“But,” I asked, “isn’t church teaching supposed to be based on the Bible?  And the word of God doesn’t change.”

“The word of God doesn’t change,” Sister Mary Rose reiterated.  “The Church will never do anything that goes against the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus.  And changing the language we use doesn’t go against any of that.  You agreed that God has male and female attributes.  So using male and female language to refer to God does not go against any teaching.”

I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”

“Pray about it.  Pray that God will give you peace about this.”

“I just don’t know if I belong here anymore.”

“What do you mean?  Where?”

“The Newman Center.  I’ve been getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, they are nondenominational, but the more I learn about the Bible, I see a lot of people here who don’t really seem to take their faith seriously.”  I shifted in my seat again, debating telling her about Lisa getting tipsy from the Communion wine; I decided not to.

“Greg, no one is perfect.  Everyone sins.  That is why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And if you are concerned about them, you can be a good example and take your faith seriously, and pray for them.”

I nodded.  “That makes sense,” I said.

“You’ve been a part of Newman for, how long?  Two years now?  I would hate for you to feel like this isn’t your spiritual home anymore.”

“Yeah.”

“May I pray for you?”

“Sure.”

Sister Mary Rose folded her hands and looked down, and I did the same.  “O Loving Parent, I pray for your blessing on Greg.  I thank you for bringing him to the Newman Center to be a part of our community.  I thank you for blessing us with his voice on Sunday mornings.  I pray that you will give him peace about these things that have been on his mind, and that he will listen for your guidance.”  She continued, saying the Hail Mary prayer, then lifted her head and opened her eyes.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Just find a quiet place and listen to God.”

“I’ve been trying to do that.”

“Good!  Keep doing that.”  We made small talk for a few minutes, and I left, feeling a little bit better, but still unsure of what to think of all this.


Later that night, when I got home from my bike ride, I turned on the radio and went to the kitchen to make dinner.  My sink was full of dirty dishes, and my little studio apartment did not have a dishwasher, so I began washing the dishes by hand.  Counting Blue Cars came on a few minutes into doing the dishes.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” lead singer J.R. Richards sang, “‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  My hands were too wet and soapy to walk over and change the station, so I left it on.  It really was not a bad song, other than the use of female pronouns for God.  

I will tell you all my thoughts on God, J.R., I thought.  God created the universe and inspired holy men to write the Bible.  Those holy men referred to God with masculine language, so I will do the same.  A huge part of knowing God is knowing and obeying his Word, and not placing the cultural norms of this liberal university town above God’s Word.  I hope you do meet him someday.

But that in no way makes women second-class citizens.  Men and women are both created in the image of God, and both have roles to play in God’s kingdom.  And I had to admit that I had not studied the original languages of the Bible, so I did not know how gender and language worked when the Bible was originally written.

I still felt unsettled about all of this, and uncomfortable with the idea of a church referring to God in the feminine.  I felt just as uncomfortable, if not more so, with church choir members getting tipsy from Communion wine.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” J.R. continued, “‘cause I’m on my way to see her.  Tell me, am I very far?”  I was going through the same process as the character in the song, seeking God and wanting to know how to get closer to him.  Maybe that would happen at the Newman Center, or maybe I was looking for something else, but I was asking the right questions and moving in the right direction.

(Interlude – March 2021.)

Welcome!  If you are new here, this is not a typical post.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student, set in 1996.  It is a story of living, learning, growing, and self-discovery, amidst a world of alternative rock and the emergence of the Internet into the mainstream.

Last week’s episode was the Year 2 season finale.  I will be taking some time off, during which I will be planning for year 3.  Also, in real life things may be kind of busy and unpredictable for the next few months, so I could use one fewer commitment.  I do not know right now when I will start writing again, but I will someday soon.  If you are new here and hoping for more episodes soon, you can always go here to read the first episode and then just read in order from there by clicking Next.

Just as with Year 1, I made a playlist with all of the music I used in Year 2:

I also added a new “Music” page to this site, with links to the playlists for each year.  And I updated the Dramatis Personae, adding character bios for Abby Bartlett, Amelia Dye, Josh McGraw, and Dr. Gabby Thomas.  I also added a number of new characters to the lists of other characters, and updated some other characters’ bios.  I will be starting a new Dramatis Personae for Year 3 soon, removing people who are not part of the story anymore. I wonder sometimes if the large cast of characters makes the story more difficult to read or follow, or if I need more character development for the other main characters. However, in real life a university student is likely to know a lot of people, and this is primarily one person’s story, not a story with an ensemble cast. On a related note, I have considered, someday when I am done telling the main story, going back and retelling some of the more interesting episodes from another character’s point of view. Or maybe I could start doing that during these interludes, when I am taking a break from the main story.

I take a break like this after every June and December in the fictional timeline.  One of the recurring topics has been the community shared by some of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship students.  Eddie and his housemates had Haley and her housemates right down the street, and Shawn and Brian and their housemates around the corner, to the point that it was almost like living in a Christian dorm.  In real life, I have come to learn that that kind of community among Christians is very difficult to find in adulthood, outside of the context of being a university student.  I have had a lot of struggles finding a church and a community as an adult, and in talking with people I have come to the conclusion that most Christians just do not have this as adults.  Instead, they have families of their own around which their lives revolve, and outside of that, church friends are just one among several compartments into which life has been divided.  Will I ever find that sense of community again in real life?  I do not know (and COVID has thrown more complications into this, of course).

I have often found that I need to keep reminding myself that, first and foremost, DLTDGB is a work of fiction.  Much of it is based on true stories, but I stress too much about getting every detail right.  Maybe two people who are in the same Bible study in DLTDGB weren’t in real life; that’s okay.  

Thank you all for your support.  Please leave comments.  I wish people would comment more often on this blog; I enjoy interacting with my readers.  If you have any questions at all for me, about anything, please ask.  If I get a lot of interesting questions, maybe I’ll share them as a question-and-answer post next week.  Or offer suggestions and thoughts on my writing.  Some of you a while back told me that my posts were too long, and ever since then I have kept them under a certain length.  Or just say hi and introduce yourself and tell me how you are doing.  I want to hear from you.

Finally, I will leave you with this picture from the oak grove in the University of Jeromeville Arboretum, with different kinds of oaks from all over the world.  I took it in February 2021, the last time I was in Jeromeville.

May 3-5, 1996. Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly.

“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later.  What was this?  I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos.  Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video.  But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.

The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built.  Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF.  By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects.  The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.

A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter.  He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer.  Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject.  Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that.  But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that.  Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane.  I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport.  The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.

Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF.  He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana  Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana?  Are you gonna go?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that.  And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer.  And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco.  So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”

“It would!”

“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”

“That makes sense.  You have a while to think about it and save up for it.  The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Are you going?”

“I’m planning to.  Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it.  It sounded really great.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around.  I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well.  Melinda saw me first and waved.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.  “How was your week?”

“It was good,” I said.  “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”

“I just finished one.  I hope I do well.  Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing.  Why?”

“Come over!  Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”

“A cat birthday party,” I repeated.  “How does that work?  Do I bring a present?”

“No.  Just bring yourself.”

“I should be able to make that.  Where do you live?”

“Pine Grove, number 202.  Do you know where that is?”

“Pine Grove Apartments?  Yeah, I know where that is.”

“Great!  Come over any time after six.”

“I’ll be there!  Sounds good!”


A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice.  The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller.  Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove.  This had been a deciding factor for me.  But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.

Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus.  I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202.  I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.

“Greg!” she said.  “Come on in!”

I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual.  Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there.  Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.

“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.

“Not much,” I said.  “I got all my homework done for the weekend.  But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”

“When’s it due?”

“Not until the 29th.”

“Then why are you thinking about it now?”

“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would.  That’ll take time.”

“Yeah, but you have the whole month.  It’s not going to take that long.”

“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked.  “That sounds awesome!  Is that your major?” 

“I’m a math major.  I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class.  And I know the professor.”

“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”

“I hope so.  Tabitha is in that class too.”

“What?” Tabitha said.  She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.

“I was talking about the anthro project.  I said you’re in that class too.”

“Oh, yeah.  Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”

“I was thinking I might do a chat room on IRC.  That way, when I’m wasting time on the Internet talking to strangers, I can tell myself I’m doing homework.”

“Smart,” Tabitha said.  “I was thinking I might do University Life.”

“That would be funny,” Joe said.  I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student.  That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment.  What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.

Over the next hour, more people trickled in.  I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others.  Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa.  There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me.  As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat.  I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

“He’s in my room.  He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”

“But this is his party!”

Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice.  “That was really just an excuse to have a party.  We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”

“Oh,” I said.  That thought had honestly never crossed my mind.  I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.

Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them.  After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly.  My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed.  Others generally found the buzzer annoying.

Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening.  He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment.  Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting.  She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.”  As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.

“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said.  “Who wants cake and ice cream?”  Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream.  Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating.  I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.

When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds.  “Sure!” she replied.  “There’s plenty.”  I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me.  A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit.  “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.

“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked.  “I made this mixtape for this party.”

“Yes.  I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.”  I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.

A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope.  “Greg?” she asked.  “Can I ask you something?

“Yeah.  What is it?”

“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer.  I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me.  Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”

“Sure,” I said.  It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer.  I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”

“Are you going to Urbana?  You’ll find out a lot there.”

“The video last night was the first I had heard of this.  I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money.  I don’t know.”

“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”

“I know.  And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”

“Totally!  Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope.  “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll read it.”

U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape.  I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me.  Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song.  The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times.  We  shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.

“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto.  Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing.  When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.

“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott.  He smiled and returned the high five.

As I looked around that room, I realized something.  None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.)  I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends.  By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.


The next day, Sunday, after singing in the choir at church, I went to lunch at Bakers Square with some of the others from choir.  Danielle Coronado, one of the people from Building C last year who remained in my inner circle, sat across from me.  “We should have gotten Mexican food,” she said.  “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”

Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me.  “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied.  She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here.  I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.

“It was good,” I said.  “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”

“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments?  I don’t remember the people’s names.”

“Yeah.  Amelia and Melinda.”

“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.

“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased.  “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”

“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire.  “We were just holding hands.  Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday?  Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”

“Urbana?  Yeah, I saw the video.  I don’t know if I’m going to go.  It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before.  But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”

“Yeah, that’s it.  Pete’s thinking about going.  He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”

“Greg?  What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire.  She was also in my anthropology class.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”

“That would be interesting!  Timely, too.  Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”

“True.  What about you?”

“I’m not sure.  I have a few things in mind, though.”

I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car.  Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself.  When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.

“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button.  “You have one new message.”  The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home.  I dialed the numbers and waited.

“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Greg.”

“Hello!  Where were you?”

“I went out to lunch with some people from church.  And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”

“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”

“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party.  The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”

“I see.  And you said these are people from JCF?  That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”

“Yeah.”

“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.  I’m glad you’re making friends.  See?  I knew you could do it.”

“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.

Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes.  Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year.  By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life.  But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life.  Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group.  But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church.  This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life  But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.

April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove.

“What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” the voice on the car stereo sang, followed by some other mumbling words and then guitars and more words.  At least it sounded like those were the words, although it seemed like an odd choice of lyrics for a rock song.  The song contained that exact line several more times.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Eddie.

“DC Talk,” he replied.  “I made this mixtape of Christian music for when I’m in the car.”

I nodded.  I had once seen another student at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship wearing a t-shirt that said DC Talk, but I had no idea what that meant.  Apparently DC Talk was a band that sang Christian music.  Other than stuff we sang in church, the only Christian music I was aware of was this Christian soft rock adult contemporary radio station back home in Santa Lucia County, which I never listened to.  But this Jesus Freak song was awesome.

For the first forty minutes after we left Jeromeville, headed west on Highway 100, we passed orchards and pastures and fields interrupted by a few small and medium-sized cities, Silvey, Nueces, Fairview, and La Yegua.  After Fairview, the flatlands of the Capital Valley gave way to grassy rolling hills dotted with oaks.  Eddie had offered me the front seat, since I was the tallest of the five of us; Sarah, Caroline, and Raphael were in the back.  Just past La Yegua, we crossed a bridge over the mouth of the Capital River where it empties into the Bay.  “Hey,” Sarah said when we were halfway across the bridge.  “There’s the other car.”

I looked to the left, in the direction Sarah was pointing.  A small sport-utility vehicle passed us with Tabitha looking at us through the window in the back seat, grinning, and Xander making a funny face over her shoulder.  Haley sat in the front seat, smiling and waving.  Five of the ten people on this trip were neighbors on Baron Court, and the rest of us met there to carpool.  I had hoped that I would end up in the same car as Haley, but I did not want to be too obvious about it.  Since Eddie had invited me on this trip, it had seemed more natural to be in his car.  Kristina drove the other car, and I could see a silhouette of John behind Xander in the back seat.  I waved, although I was not sure anyone could see me from the front passenger seat.

We continued driving through the hills lining the shore of the Bay, through an industrial area, then through several cities and towns that all ran into each other.  In Oaksville, Highways 100, 150, and 88 all met at the entrance to another large bridge.  Eddie drove across the bridge as we saw the lights and buildings of Bay City approaching.

“This is such a great view,” Sarah said.

“Yes,” Raphael agreed.  “One of the greatest cities in the world.”

“I’m not used to seeing it from this side,” I said.  “When we came to Bay City, we always came up 11, and usually it was for Titans games on the other side of the city.”

“Have you never seen downtown Bay City before?” Eddie asked.

“Just twice.”

“It’s pretty awesome.”

We turned onto Highway 11 north, which became a city street, Van Winkle Avenue; the freeway was never completed across the city.  About two miles up Van Winkle Avenue, Eddie pointed across the street and said “There it is.”  I saw the sign for the Hard Rock Cafe, on a building on the corner.  We found a nearby parking garage and walked to the entrance, where the group from the other car waited for us.


The Hard Rock Cafe was loud and crowded.  The walls were covered with music memorabilia, and music played loudly over speakers.  While we waited to get our seat, I read a sign on the wall telling the history of the Hard Rock Cafe.  Two Americans living in London in 1971 started the first Hard Rock Cafe as a place to serve American food and listen to great music.  Eric Clapton became a regular customer, and he hung a guitar on the wall above his favorite seat.  The restaurant incorporated this into their decor and soon opened other locations in big cities and tourist traps worldwide, with music memorabilia on the walls of all of them.

I got up to use the bathroom and took my time getting back to my seat, admiring photographs, posters, guitars, and fancy costumes on display, each with a plaque explaining whom it belonged to and its significance.  I also saw a sign saying “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons Allowed.”  I rolled my eyes… hippies.  I could not find my friends in the lobby when I returned, so I walked around the restaurant, looking to see if they had been seated and admiring more rock memorabilia as I looked for them.  When I found them, I smiled nervously at my good fortune; the seat that they had left open for me, coincidentally, was next to Haley.

“Hey,” Haley said when I sat down.  “You found us.”

“Yeah.  I was just looking at stuff on the wall.  It’s really cool.”

“Have you been here before?”

“No.  Have you?”

“Not this one.  But I’ve been to one in Hawaii, on vacation with my family.”

“Nice.  I’ve never been to Hawaii either.”

“I’ve only been once.  It’s so beautiful!”

“I can imagine,” I said.  “So how are your classes this quarter?”

“They’re definitely keeping me busy.  I’m taking a lot.”  Just then the server came and interrupted our conversation.  I ordered a cheeseburger, nothing too adventurous.

All of us talked more about life and classes and things while we waited for the food to arrive.  At one point, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” came on; I thought this was the Hard Rock Cafe, not the Hard Rap Cafe, but I did not complain.  Kristina started rapping along with Coolio.  “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she began.

“That’s in the Bible, you know,” Eddie said to no one in particular.  I did not know the first time I heard the song, but I did now; it was from Psalm 23, one of the more famous passages in the Bible.  The song was from the movie Dangerous Minds, and I still had a negative memory of that movie, because of what I saw a few rows in front of me when I watched it.

By the time the food arrived, I was starving.  I ate my cheeseburger quickly.  I looked around; Haley was eating a chicken salad, and John, on my other side, had the same cheeseburger I did.  “How is it?” I asked Haley.

“It’s really good,” she said.  “You must have liked yours.  You ate it fast.”

“I did.  And I was starving.  I hadn’t eaten since noon.  It’s after nine o’clock.”

“Yeah, we’re eating late.  Do you know about this place we’re going next?”

“We’re going to sleep on the beach next, aren’t we?”

“Apparently we’re going somewhere else first,” Haley explained.  “One of the guys’ other roommates told us we have to see this thing, but Eddie said it’s a surprise.”

“He didn’t tell me.”

Eddie jumped into our conversation.  “Seriously, it’ll be worth it,” he said.

When the waiter brought our checks, he also gave us each a small button with the Hard Rock Cafe logo in flames.  “1971-1996, 25 Years of Rock,” it said.  Kristina pinned hers to the strap of her purse.  I did not know what I would do with mine; stick in a box somewhere, maybe.

And then 25 more years will pass, and I’ll write about that trip and remember exactly where I put that button.



After we finished paying for the meal, we went back to our cars.  Eddie worked his way southwest across the city, and at a red light he handed me an unfolded map.  “I need someone to help me navigate; I have to watch the road.  This is where we’re going,” he said, pointing at a green spot on the map labeled Bosque Hill Park. “Can you read maps?”

I grew up fascinated by maps, and up until that moment of my life, it had never occurred to me that some people could not read maps.  “Yeah,” I said.  It was a strange question to me.  I was reminded of those first few days of freshman year in Building C, talking about my fascination with maps.  I looked over my shoulder at Sarah in the back seat, grinning; she made eye contact with me and started laughing loudly.  I laughed too. She was thinking of the same thing.

“What’s so funny?” Eddie asked.

“At the start of freshman year, the day I met Greg,” Sarah explained, “someone told me that he loved maps.  So he made me tell Greg the highways near my house, to see if Greg could guess where I was from.  And he was right, and Greg and I have been friends ever since.”

“Good job!” Eddie said.

We arrived at Bosque Hill and parked on the street.  Street parking is usually scarce in Bay City, and when Raphael saw another spot open, he suggested we stand there and save the spot for Kristina’s car.  I wondered what was so special about Bosque Hill.  I had seen it on a map, and I had read that it was the highest natural elevation in Bay City, around 1000 feet.  I guessed that the surprise would be a spectacular view of the city lights at night.

After the other car arrived, we began climbing the hill on a well-worn dirt path.  A few people carried flashlights.  The path was surrounded by trees and brush on both sides, and the chirps and buzzes of bugs intertwined with the distant dull roar of the city.  A few times, I could see sweeping views of city lights below, but that was not the surprise Eddie was showing us.

The path turned a corner, and I could see the top of the hill, where a giant cross stood, towering over us, taller than the six-story building where my mathematics professors’ offices were.  What was this?  Why was it here?  I walked closer and read a plaque, identifying this cross as a memorial to pioneers who came from around the world and settled the area.  I looked up and saw that all my friends had adopted postures of prayer, so I did the same.  I looked up at the cross and prayed silently.  Jesus Christ, I thank you for this reminder that you died on the cross to save me from my sins and bring eternal life.  I thank you for the beauty of your creation, even here in the middle of the city.  I thank you that these friends, these brothers and sisters in Christ, invited me on this trip, and I pray that we will have safe travels.  No one spoke for about ten minutes.  I wondered how long we were going to stay here, but I did not want to interrupt everyone’s prayers, so I just kept praying until I saw people start to walk downhill.

“That was pretty cool,” I said when we were back in the car.  Eddie was driving toward the coast on the west side of the city, along the open ocean.  “I had no idea it was there.”

“I was thinking on the way down,” Caroline said.  “When we’re all standing there praying to a cross, couldn’t that be considered idolatry?”

“Hmm,” Eddie replied, thinking.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily idolatry,” I answered.  “We’re not praying to the cross.  We’re praying to Jesus, and the cross is a symbol reminding us of him.”

“That makes sense,” Eddie said.

“Good point, Greg,” Sarah added.

“Thanks,” I replied.

The coast south of Bay City was rugged and hilly, and we drove along the road that hugs the shore for about half an hour, to a town called Moonlight Cove.  I had never been this way before.  The town must have been named on a day unlike today, because tonight it was cloudy and no moon was visible.  “How does this work?” I asked, being completely unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping outside.  “Do we just put down our sleeping bags and sleep on the beach?”

“Pretty much.”

Kristina’s car had beaten us here by a few minutes this time, and we parked next to them.  “Look,” I said as we were unloading.  “That sign over there says ‘No Camping.’  Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

“Yeah, but they never check,” Eddie explained.  “My friends and I in high school came here and slept on this beach a few times.”

“My family lives just over those hills,” Caroline added, “and we came to this beach all the time.  We never spent the night, but I don’t remember anyone patrolling the area or anything.”

“If you say so,” I said, still dreading the fact that we were doing something illegal.  After staying up talking for a bit more, someone pointed out that it was almost midnight, and we decided to go to sleep.

Today, as an adult, I recognize the value of experiences, and I have stayed up all night enough times to know that doing so will not kill me.  But in 1996, I felt like I desperately had to sleep, so when people kept talking as others drifted off to sleep, I felt a need to move somewhere out of earshot.  I quietly told them so, and I dragged my sleeping bag inland about a hundred feet to a slightly more secluded spot near some large rocks.  If the police caught us camping and hauled us off to jail, maybe they would not see me.

Even in my new spot, though, sleep eluded me.  I always had a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, and I was uncomfortable sleeping on sand with the ocean roaring nearby and the wind blowing.  After tossing and turning for a long time, I realized that I had to pee, but there was no bathroom.  I carefully walked behind the rocks, relieved myself, and returned to the sleeping bag.  I looked at my watch; it was 1:29.  I tossed and turned as my mind raced.  I felt somehow inferior to the others since I could not sleep outside, and since my life did not include sleeping outside in any childhood experiences.  I also had homework to do at home.  I tried to think happy thoughts.  Eddie inviting me on this trip.  Sitting next to Haley at the Hard Rock Cafe.  Driving places I had never seen before.  Haley’s pretty blue eyes.  Hiking to the top of Bosque Hill.  The way Haley’s whole face lights up when she smiles.  I got up to use the rocks again at 2:11, then I began praying like I did at the top of Bosque Hill.  I thanked Jesus Christ for all he had done for me and tried to listen to see if he was speaking to me.  I closed my eyes.


The next thing I knew, it was light out.  My watch said 7:02.  I had slept for almost five hours, and given the circumstances, that was probably as good as it would get.  As I returned from using the rocks as my toilet again, I noticed that no one else seemed awake.  I lay in my sleeping bag, enjoying the view, for about forty-five minutes, until I saw Eddie clearly moving around.  I walked back out of sight of the others and changed into the other clothes I had brought, then rolled up my sleeping bag and walked to the others.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie whispered.  “You sleep well?”

“Eventually, but it took a long time to fall asleep.  I never sleep well in unfamiliar places.”

“But you did sleep.”

“I did.”

“Hey, guys,” John whispered, joining the conversation.

Everyone else woke up over the next fifteen minutes as we spoke in whispers.  Once everyone was awake and speaking at a normal volume, Sarah asked, “What’s for breakfast?”

“I was thinking we could go into town and just pick up a few things at Safeway,” Kristina suggested.  “Anyone want to come with me?”

“Sure,” Haley said, getting out of her sleeping bag.

This was my chance.  “I’ll come,” I said.

“Great!” Kristina said.  “Ready?”

As I walked with Kristina and Haley to the parking lot, I realized that I had not showered or brushed my teeth or put on deodorant.  This may not be the best time to be talking to Haley.  But, then again, she probably had not done any of that stuff either.

“I was thinking, get some bagels, and fruit, and juice.  And we need cups for the juice.  Does that work for you guys?” Kristina asked.

“Sure,” Haley said.  I nodded.

We arrived at the store, took a cart, and walked through the aisles together.  After Kristina walked forward to look at different kinds of bagels, Haley asked me, “So did you ever figure out where you’re going to live next year?”

I’m going to live with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr.  Shawn is going to be student teaching, and Brian is going to work with JCF part time and apply to medical school.”

“Oh, wow.  Older guys.  Isn’t Brian applying to medical school right now?”

“Shawn said he didn’t get in.”

“Really.”

“He’s on a waitlist at one place, so plans might change if he does get in, but right now he’s planning to live in Jeromeville another year.  And there’s a fourth guy, Josh McGraw, he’s Abby Bartlett’s boyfriend, and he commutes to Jeromeville now and wants to move into town.”

“I don’t know Josh, but Shawn and Brian are great guys.  You’ll like living with them.”

“You’re living with Shawn Yang and Brian Burr next year?” Kristina said, putting bagels in the cart.  “Awesome!  Where?”

“We don’t have a place yet.  We’re going to get together sometime soon to make plans.”

“That’s cool!”

We returned to the beach with the food a few minutes later.  This was not my usual routine of cereal in milk for breakfast, but it was food and that was the important thing.  After we finished eating, Xander walked to the parking lot and returned with a guitar.  “I’ve been learning some worship songs,” he said.  He started playing some of the songs we sang at JCF large group, as well as a few that I did not think I had heard before.  Tabitha asked for a turn with Xander’s guitar, and she played and sang a few songs too.  We all just sat there for over an hour, praising God through music and enjoying the beauty of his creation.

In the early afternoon, we packed everything up and got ready to head back to Jeromeville.  “What are we doing for lunch?” Kristina asked.

“I know this great sandwich place where I used to go with my family when we would come here,” Caroline said.  “Does that sound good?”

“Sure!”

We got back into the cars, and Caroline directed Eddie to the sandwich shop in Old Town Moonlight Cove, about two miles from the beach where we were.  The others followed in Kristina’s car.  This place was much smaller, quieter, and less flashy than the Hard Rock Cafe, unsurprisingly.  I ordered a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese; it was very, very good.

“I like this place,” I said to Caroline.  “Good suggestion.”

“So what was your favorite part of the trip, Greg?” Eddie asked me.  He had been asking everyone this.

“Probably the Hard Rock Cafe,” I said.  “I liked all the music stuff on the wall.”

“Do you play an instrument or anything?  You said you sing, right?”

“I sing at my church.  And I’ve always liked listening to music.”

“You seemed to like my mixtape too.”

“Yeah.  I haven’t really listened to a lot of Christian pop and rock music.”

“You should.  I think there’s some stuff out there that you’d like.”

After lunch, we got back in the cars and began the two hour drive back to Jeromeville.  Eddie put on a different mixtape of Christian music.  As we crossed back east over the Bay City Bridge, leaving the city, I heard familiar guitar chords coming from Eddie’s mixtape.  “Rain, rain on my face, hasn’t stopped raining for days,” the voice sang.

“Hey, I know this song,” I said.  “I’ve heard it on the radio before.”

“Jars of Clay,” Eddie replied.  “I know, I’ve heard it on 100.3.  It’s cool to hear Christian music get played on secular radio stations.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I had not listened to the lyrics closely enough to recognize it as Christian music, but it all made sense now.  “Lift me up when I’m falling.  I need you to hold me.”  

Somewhere around Nueces, Eddie’s mixtape ended, and he put on the first mixtape with Jesus Freak again.  I was definitely going to look more into this Christian music.  We arrived back at Eddie’s house in Jeromeville in the late afternoon.  Kristina’s car arrived a minute later and parked nearby, and everyone who did not live on Baron Court began unloading and moving their things to their own cars.

“Thanks for driving, Eddie,” I said.  “And thanks for inviting me.”

“Thanks for coming!” Eddie replied.  “Have a great rest of the weekend!”

“I’m glad you could make it, Greg,” I heard Haley say.  I turned to her and saw the smile I had been thinking of earlier.  She stepped forward to hug me, and we embraced.

“I’m glad you went too,” I said.  “Have a good rest of the weekend.”

After everyone said their goodbyes, I drove back to my apartment in north Jeromeville. This was the best weekend I had had in a long time.  Once I got inside with the car radio off, that Jesus Freak song started going through my head again.  This was my life now.  I was a Jesus Freak.  The despair of the past was behind me, and I was following Jesus with a supportive group of brothers and sisters in Christ.

I knew that the point of following Jesus was not about being part of the in-crowd, but it still felt good that the in-crowd was including me.  I had a group of friends who genuinely cared about me, something that I had not had for most of my life, and I was going to be living with cool older guys next year.  Of course, God had a lot to show me about how life really works over the coming years, but for now, life was good.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

I locked my bike outside Wellington Hall and walked down the hall, joining about five other people waiting outside room 109 for the 9:00 Math 22A class.  Another class met in this room at 8:00, and I always arrived early enough that the other class had not been dismissed yet.  I learned the hard way on the first day of class not to open the door this early.

“Hey, Greg,” Jack Chalmers said.  I knew Jack from last year; we had had two classes together, and we lived in nearby dorms and ate at the same dining commons.

“Hi,” I said.

“Finding inverses of matrices is hard!” Jack exclaimed, speaking quickly and eliding syllables here and there, as he normally did, but I understood what he was saying.  “The homework took me forever!”

“I know.  It seems like there should be an easier way.  Maybe we’ll learn one later.”

As Jack continued, I became aware of the classroom emptying.  “I just hope every assignment in this class isn’t gonna be that long.  I’m already pretty busy this quarter.  Hey, Lizzie.”

“Hey, what happened last night?” a girl leaving the classroom asked Jack.  I recognized Lizzie, because I had seen Jack say hi to her before as we waited for her class to finish and ours to start.  Lizzie was fairly short, with brown eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

“I had so much homework!” Jack told Lizzie.

“That’s too bad,” Lizzie replied.  “Hopefully I’ll see you this weekend?”

“Yeah.”

Lizzie looked at me for a second before she turned to walk away.  “Bye,” I said, waving, even though I did not know Lizzie at all beyond always seeing her leave this class, and I had no idea what plans Jack had missed out on.

“Bye,” she replied, smiling.

I walked into the room along with Jack and the others waiting for our math class.  I spent the next hour listening to the instructor, a curly-haired man named Anton, explain properties of matrices and their inverses.  Anton demonstrated how to prove the invertibility of a matrix, in his usual broken English.  He told us to call him Anton; I was not sure if this was because his last name was difficult for English-speakers, or because calling professors by first name was the norm in his home country.  I never did figure out exactly which country this was.

As soon as math class finished, I crossed West Quad Avenue and walked to the far end of the Memorial Union building, near the campus bookstore, to a stairway leading down.  The basement of this building contained a game room with 16 lanes of bowling, along with pool tables, pinball machines, and coin-operated video games.  Here at the University of Jeromeville, students got two appointments to register for classes, three weeks apart, using an automated telephone system.  On the first appointment, students may only register for up to thirteen and one-half units, enough to be classified as a full time student, but limited so that not all classes fill up before everyone has had a chance to register.  I registered for bowling and weight training just to make sure I had enough classes, intending to drop these once I added chemistry on the second pass, but I ended up keeping bowling and only dropping weight training.

Today, the bowling coach, Frank White, demonstrated the proper release of the ball, with a flick of the wrist giving the ball a bit of spin.  We began learning this last time, on Monday, and I was terrible at it.  My mind began to wander, and I spent a few minutes starting at a plaque on the wall with names of everyone who bowled a perfect game on these lanes.  So far, there were eight perfect games.  This was the fourth time bowling class had met this year, and I had been bowling down here a few times last year, but today one of those names jumped out at me that I had never noticed before.

FRANK WHITE
4/29/89

Frank White was my instructor, the man standing here in front of me explaining how to release the ball.  Apparently he bowled a perfect game here six years ago.  That was quite an accomplishment.  I watched carefully, paying close attention to what he was doing.  By the end of class, though, it seemed like my technique was worse than ever.  I had not bowled this many gutter balls since I was a child.

I had an hour between bowling and chemistry lecture, which I used to work on the new math assignment due Friday.  After chemistry, I had another hour before physics lecture; I spent it sitting on the Quad, eating the lunch I packed and reading the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt.  After physics, I returned to Wellington, where my math class had been in the morning.  Room 102 was a large study room, with a row of comfortable chairs, and six cubicles each containing a table and a small chalkboard.  A few students sat quietly in the chairs, and two students worked together in one of the cubicles.  I noticed the cubicles had signs with numbers on them.  Four other signs placed in prominent places around the room announced that These cubicles may be reserved by the Learning Skills Center.

That was me.  This was my first day on the job for the Learning Skills Center.  I walked to table 3, where two students named Yesenia Fonseca and Kevin Dunnigan were assigned to meet me.  A short girl with olive skin and long brown hair most of the way down her back sat at the table.  I wondered if she was waiting for me, or if she just sat there not knowing that the table was reserved.

“Are you Yesenia?” I asked.

The girl’s face lit up.  “Yeah!” she exclaimed enthusiastically.  “You’re my tutor?”

“Yes.  I’m Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!  Is it just us or will there be a group?”

“There’s one other person signed up, a guy named Kevin Dunnigan.  Do you know him?”

“No,” she said.   “But he might be in my class.  It’s a huge class.”

“I think usually they put students together from the same class, so he probably is,” I explained.  Yesenia and Kevin were taking Math 21A, the beginning quarter of calculus.  Students who begin calculus fall quarter get a large lecture hall class..  I skipped a quarter since I had taken the Advanced Placement test in high school, so I started fall of my freshman year in 21B, and since fewer students take 21B in the fall compared to 21A, my classes were smaller.

“We can wait a few minutes to get started, see if Kevin comes,” I said.  “It’s early.”

“How does this work?”

“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” I said.  “This is my first time tutoring, ever.  I think I just answer any questions you have about anything you’ve been going over in class.  Or we can work on stuff from your homework.  You can do it while I’m here, so you can ask for help if you need to.”

“That sounds good.  So what year are you?”

“I’m a sophomore,” I said.

“I’m a freshman.”  Yesenia smiled apologetically, as if to say that she knew that freshmen were traditionally on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  I did not care that she was a freshman.

“How do you like Jeromeville so far?” I asked.

“I love it!  I’ve already made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Good.  Which dorm?”

“South Area.  Building C.”

“Building C!” I exclaimed.  “I was in Building C last year!”

The IHP!”

“Yes!  I loved it too!  I felt like the IHP gave me a smaller community within the large university.”

“That’s a great way of describing it.”

 A boy with dark hair and an athletic build approached our table, looking at a sheet of paper on which he had written something.  “Are you Greg?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Kevin?”

“Yeah.  You’re my tutor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  Kevin Dunnigan did not look like what I expected of someone with an Irish-sounding name; I wondered from his appearance if his mother was Asian.  “Do you two know each other?”

“No,” Kevin said.

“I’m Yesenia,” Yesenia said, extending her hand.  “I think I’ve seen you in class.  10:00 with Dr. Hong?”

“Yeah.”

I spent the next fifty minutes working with Yesenia and Kevin, talking about limits of functions and how to calculate them.  This was the class that I had skipped; I had not technically taken it before.  I was familiar with most of what they were doing, of course, but one question on their assignment involved the epsilon-delta proof of finding the limit of a function.  My calculus class at Plumdale High did not go that in depth.  However, I was able to figure it out; I had done enough similar problems in other classes since then.

“It’s about time to wrap up,” I said at the end of the session.  “Any other questions before we leave?”

“I’m starting to understand this a lot better,” Kevin replied.

“Me too,” Yesenia added.  “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “See you guys next week?”

“Yeah!

 

It was almost 4:30 by the time I finally got home.  I spent some time on the computer catching up on emails, and I put a frozen pot pie in the oven for dinner.  I still had to do my pre-lab for physics tomorrow.  But my night was not over yet, because it was Wednesday, and I had choir practice at church.  Last week was the first time I had ever sung at church, and one of the others in the group, Heather Escamilla, had mentioned carpooling since we were neighbors in the same apartment complex.  At 6:40 that night, after eating the pot pie and writing my pre-lab, I walked to Heather’s apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg,” Heather said, opening the door.  I could see a guy with long brown hair inside the apartment, sitting at a computer typing; he looked up at me.  “This is my boyfriend, Gary,” Heather said.

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Gary replied.

“You ready?” Heather asked.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

Heather locked the door behind her, and I followed her to her car, a Jeep Cherokee.  The way Gary sat at the computer made me wonder if he and Heather lived together.  Being Catholic, there was all that stuff about fornication and adultery and things like that which suggested that it was wrong for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together.  Maybe they lived together in separate bedrooms.  It was none of my business, so I did not ask.  On the way to the church, I told Heather about my first day of tutoring, and she told me about the midterm she had in the morning that she would be up late studying for.

When we arrived, I noticed that Danielle was there with her sister, Carly, a freshman.  I had met Carly twice before, once at church this year and once last year when Danielle’s family came to visit her in the dorm.  I thought it was interesting that Carly was singing too.  Danielle had told me over the summer that Carly was coming to Jeromeville, and Danielle was a little bit upset that Carly had chosen the same major and was in one of the same classes as her.  And now Carly was following her big sister to choir at the Newman Center.  I hoped that there was no drama going on with them.

“Hi, Greg,” Danielle said.  “You remember my sister, Carly?”

“Yeah.  Good to see you again.”

“You too,” Carly replied.  Carly was a few inches taller and somewhat thinner than Danielle, with straight brown hair.  They did not look very much alike, but considering that my brother Mark does not look like me, I no longer found it surprising when siblings did not look alike.  For as much as Danielle was a good friend, I had to admit that Carly was better looking.  I wondered if, growing up, Carly got more attention from boys, and if this had been part of the reason Danielle felt uneasy about Carly being in the same major and one of Danielle’s classes.

A few minutes later, Claire, a junior who seemed somewhat to be in charge of things, gave us all a stack of papers.  It was an address and phone list of all of us doing music at 11:00 Mass.  I scanned the list to make sure that my information was correct; it was.  I read through the other names.  I recognized some of the names.  Danielle Coronado.  Carly Coronado.  Matt Jones.  Heather Escamilla.  Some of the last names were unfamiliar to me, because I had only met these people by first name last week.  Claire Seaver.  Sabrina Murpy.  That was an unusual last name; I wondered if it was a typo and her name was actually Murphy.  (It was, I would learn later.)  I continued reading.  Phil Gallo.  Ryan Gambrell.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body, and I did a double take and read the name again.  My brain made a flurry of connections between things said a year ago and things said last week.  Matt said last week that Ryan was his friend from high school.  Matt went to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, so Ryan also went to St. Luke’s.  Right near where I grew up.  I looked at Ryan, now seeing his mysteriously familiar toothy smile with new eyes.

“Ryan Gambrell,” I said.

“Yeah?” Ryan replied.

You’re Annie’s brother.”

Ryan looked confused for a second, then surprised; clearly he was not expecting me to say that.  “Yes,” he said.  “How do you know my sister?”

“I went to Plumdale High.  A class I was in and a class she was in did a project together my senior year, her sophomore year.  And now I remember I told her I was going to Jeromeville, and she said her brother goes there.”

“How funny.  Small world.”

“Tell her I said hi.”  I wanted to tell Annie so much more than hi.  I wanted to tell her all about how I was doing here.  I wanted to know where she was applying to school, since she was a senior this year.  I wondered what to make of the fact that she was always so nice to me when I was a senior, and she wrote something really nice in the back of my yearbook, but she had not stayed in touch at all.  I wanted to tell her to come visit me if she ever came up here to visit Ryan or to tour the campus.  And I was curious if she and her boyfriend were still together, because as long as they were, all these feelings I had felt wrong and forbidden.

“I will,” Ryan said.

Choir practice continued uneventfully for the rest of the night.  One song I did not know well, but I figured it out fairly quickly and felt that I would be able to sing it with everyone else in front of the congregation on Sunday morning.  On the way home, in Heather’s Jeep, I mentioned to her about knowing Ryan’s sister from high school.

“Whoa,” Heather said.  “It’s weird how that kind of thing happens.”

“I know.”

“Gary told me once he was in Capital City, and he ran into this guy he knew from when he used to live in Arizona as a kid.”

“Wow.  That’s even crazier.”

I got home and listened to music while I opened an IRC chat on the computer; although I was messaging a girl on there, I could not stop thinking about Annie Gambrell.  I wondered if I would ever see her again.  Even though she had not written to me, I had a connection with her again, in that I knew her brother.  But I also felt that this crush was one I needed to keep secret, because the entire time I knew her in person, she had a boyfriend.  Annie’s boyfriend was one of the popular guys from the class a year older than her and a year younger than me.

In the time that I knew Ryan, I ended up not talking to him much about Annie.  Annie was off limits.  Most of the best girls were off limits.  It was not my place in life to be romantically involved with the popular girls.  The concept of high school popularity does not carry over to the culture of a large university, but still felt, deep down inside, that I probably did not have much of a shot with friendly and attractive girls here either.

 

 

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.

August 10-23, 1995.  Voices of Austria and birthday surprises.

My brain tends to do weird things when I am in a familiar place and I see a familiar face that has no connection to that  place.  That happened one Thursday morning when a short girl with long red hair walked into the store.

“Hey,” I said, in a familiar tone, because I knew her.  Of course I knew her; it was Renee Robertson, and she had been my prom date a little over a year ago.  My brain caught up then and became confused, because I did not expect to see Renee in Books & More.  Somehow my brain took those thoughts of confusion and turned them into the spoken words, “I know you.”

Renee appeared to be as surprised as I was when she turned and looked at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “I forgot you worked here.”

“How are you?”

“Actually, I’m here for Catherine.  I’m putting these flyers up around town.  Do you think I’d be able to put one up here?”  Renee put a flyer on the counter.  I read it.


VOICES OF AUSTRIA
Choir & Orchestra Performance

Wednesday, August 23, 1995, 7:00pm
Good Shepherd Church, Gabilan


 

“So this is a choir made up of people Catherine knew when she was in Austria?”

“Yeah.  She put together this trip where we’re going to do a tour of performances around here.  Gabilan, Mount Lorenzo, San Tomas, and Bay City, I think.  And we’re going to sing the national anthem at a Titans game.”

“That’s so cool!” I said.

“Yeah.  Just contact Catherine for tickets.”

“For sure!  I will!”

“So where can I put the flyer?  Do you need to ask your supervisor?”

“She isn’t here right now, but I’ll ask her later this afternoon.”

“Great!”

“How is your summer going?” I asked.

“It’s pretty good.  I’m mostly just hanging out with family and Anthony,” Renee answered.  “I’m glad he was able to come home.  It was hard having him so far away last year.”

“I’m sure it was.”

“How’s your summer?”

“Nothing too exciting here.  Just working here.  I’ve been going to a lot of San Tomas Mountain Lions roller hockey games.  And I took a day trip to Jeromeville with my family and my cousins.”

“That sounds fun.  I haven’t been back to Valle Luna all summer.  Hey, I need to get going and put up the rest of these flyers.  But it was good seeing you!”

“You too!  I’ll definitely be at your show.  Say hi to Anthony for me.”

“I will!  Thanks!”

Jane arrived about an hour later, and she approved of me putting the Voices of Austria flyer in the window.  She wanted to know more about what exactly they would be singing.  I did not know anything beyond what was on the flyer, and I told her so.

When my shift ended that day, I did not go straight home.  Instead, I went to the Lucky grocery store across the parking lot from Books & More.  Lucky stores disappeared a few years later in a merger with Albertsons, and they reappeared in the early 21st century when Albertsons sold all of their holdings in this part of the country, including the Lucky name, to another company.  I walked straight to the greeting card aisle and looked for birthday cards.  Greeting card companies made special cards for 18th and 21st birthdays, because of the legal milestones involved, and special cards for people turning 30, 40, and 50.  But to my knowledge there were no cards for turning 20, as the person I was shopping for was doing.  My own birthday was coming up next week also, and there were definitely no special cards for turning 19.

After a few minutes, I chose a card that had a cartoon drawing of an elephant, saying, “Of course I remembered your birthday!”  On the inside, the card said, “Who are you?”  I chuckled loudly for a second, in the middle of the store, when I read that.

After I got back to the car, I thought for a few minutes, then started writing on the inside.


Megan

Happy birthday!  How are your classes going?  I hope you’re doing well.  Things really aren’t very exciting for me.  One of my friends from high school came into the store today; that was a nice surprise.  I can’t wait to get back to Jeromeville and see everyone again.  I hope you have a great birthday!  What are you doing for it?  My birthday is coming up on the 15th, but I don’t have anything planned, probably just cake and presents with my family.  See you soon!

Greg


 

I had carefully prepared for this moment.  I left the house today knowing that I would probably have to mail Megan’s card today in order for it to get to Jeromeville by August 12, her actual birthday.  I had a stamp and a scrap of paper on which I had written Megan’s address in the glove compartment.  I put the stamp on the envelope and copied the address onto the envelope: Megan McCauley, 2525 E. 5th St. #202, Jeromeville, followed by the state abbreviation and ZIP code.  I knew that the mail at the nearest Post Office did not get picked up until five in the afternoon, so I drove there to mail Megan’s card, which would most likely get it to Jeromeville in two days.  

I drove home, still nervous about what I had done.  Sending a friend a birthday card should not have been a big deal, and Megan and I had been periodically in touch by email for most of the summer.  But this was not just any friend.  Megan was a year older than me, the first older friend I made at UJ other than my dorm’s resident advisors.  She was so nice.  And she was cute.  I felt kind of dumb.  I probably didn’t have a chance with her.  She probably saw me as a silly little kid.

 

Ten years earlier, my childish lack of self-control led to a new family tradition in the Dennison household.  I had asked for an obscure computer game for my birthday, the first birthday after our family got our first computer.  I woke up at 1:30 in the morning, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 3:30, asking if it was time to open presents; Mom told me to go back to sleep.  I woke again at 5:00, asking if it was time to open presents, and Mom handed me a box, saying, “Here’s your stupid game!  Now let me sleep!”  Since then, we have always opened mine and Mark’s birthday presents on the night before, so I would not be too excited to sleep on the night before receiving presents.  To this day, I visit my parents every Christmas, and we still open Christmas presents on the night of December 24.

My 19th birthday was August 15, five days after the day Renee came into the store.  Although I felt that I had probably outgrown the insomnia-inducing excitement on the night before receiving birthday presents, Mom still insisted on giving my presents on the 14th after dinner.  Many of this year’s gifts were practical things for the new apartment.

“Thank you,” I said after opening a cookie sheet.  As I began opening a package the size of a compact disc case, Mom said, “This is more of a fun gift.”

“It looks like music,” I replied.  I thought I knew what it was, because I had only mentioned one CD that I wanted, and I was right.  It was the album Cracked Rear View by Hootie & the Blowfish.

“And I thought you would like this,” Mom said, handing me what appeared to be a wrapped paperback book.  I had spent enough time around books that summer that I recognized the shape and size.  But as I began unwrapping it, it felt like it was not entirely solid, more like it was several thin paperback books.  “Oh!” I said as I had removed enough wrapping paper to see the name Stephen King on the side of each thin paperback.  “The Green Mile.”

“Part 6 isn’t out yet.  So you’ll have to watch for it at Books & More.  Or at the campus store in Jeromeville.”

“I can do that.”  I had read that Stephen King had been working on publishing a novel in monthly installments, but I knew nothing about the story.  I read the descriptions on the backs of the first two books, something about a murder and prisoners awaiting execution and something mysterious happening at the prison.  Of course there was something mysterious happening; it was Stephen King.

green mile

The best birthday surprise came two days later when I got home from work.  After Mom said hi to me, she said, “That girl you know who is in Jeromeville this summer, is her name Megan McCauley?”

I felt a jolt of excitement.  “Yes,” I said, trying not to draw attention to my thoughts.

“You got something from her. It looks like a birthday card.  I left it on the table.”

“I see it.  Thanks.”  I picked up Megan’s card from the table and took it to my bedroom.  Looking at the envelope, I realized that I had never seen Megan’s handwriting before.  It did not look like what I would have expected; the lowercase letters were much smaller than the capital letters, with a lot of space between them.  After so many years of being in school and seeing people’s handwritten work, it seemed odd that I could know someone for a year and never see her handwriting.

I opened the envelope.  Inside was a card with a picture of a birthday cake with candles, and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in large colorful letters above it.  The printed text on the inside said, “Celebrate your special day!”  Megan had added a note in her own handwriting.


Happy birthday!  Thanks for the card!  I hope you’re enjoying your summer!  I’ll see you in the fall.

-Megan


 

It wasn’t a very long note, but it was better than nothing, and I was getting emails periodically from Megan so I already knew the basics of what was going on in her life.  Still, though, it was nice that she thought of me and took the time to send a card.

 

Mom and Dad and I arrived at Good Shepherd Church slightly better dressed than usual.  I was wearing a shirt with a collar and no writing on it.  I saw an older couple dressed nicely and realized that I might be under-dressed for an event like this, but looking around I also spotted others dressed similarly to me, so I was probably okay.

 I was unsure what to expect.  I looked through the program and saw names of pieces of music that I did not know, many of which were in German or Latin.  A few of the composers’ names were familiar, like Mozart, and that made me feel a little smarter.  This was no big deal; I should not be this nervous.  I was watching my friends in a performance; I belonged here just as much as anyone else.  No one was going to judge me for not knowing classical music.  I continued looking through the program and recognized the name of a song: Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music.  I had seen that movie many times.  It was one of Mom’s favorites, although watching it with her meant having to hear her sing along to everything.

Mom nudged me, with her program open.  I looked up.  She pointed to the last three words of the title “Gott nahe zu sein, ist mein Glück,” and whispered, “It’s my gluck,” pronouncing the last word as if it rhymed with “pluck.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” I said, trying to stifle giggles at this silly randomness.

A few minutes later, the performers walked onto the stage, the choir standing on risers placed in front of the altar, and the orchestra seated in front of them.  Catherine walked to the front of the stage.  “Welcome to Voices of Austria,” she said.  “My name is Catherine Yaras.  I grew up here, but I spent my senior year studying in Austria.  I performed with some of these musicians here during that year.  Now they have come out here to perform and do some sightseeing.  This is the first of six performances we will be doing, including the national anthem at a Bay City Titans baseball game.  So please sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

As they began singing and playing, I started to feel out of place again.  I did not know what to expect at a classical music performance.  I guessed it was probably frowned upon to sing along or wave lighters or shout “FREE BIRD!” in between songs.  Everyone else seemed to be sitting still and clapping at the end of each song, so I did the same.  I wondered if any customers from the bookstore were in attendance tonight.  This was their world.  Probably not, though.

As much as I did not know classical music or understand the lyrics, I really did enjoy the performance.  All of them sounded beautiful, and for as much fun as rock and pop music could be, classical music had complexities far beyond that of most rock and pop music that gave it a pleasing sound.

When they got to the Glück song, I noticed that that word was not pronounced like Mom said, rhyming with “pluck,” but with a vowel that does not exist in English, close to rhyming with “Luke” but not exactly.  I leaned over to Mom and whispered, “It’s ‘Glück, not gluck,” attempting to replicate that sound.

“I hear that,” she whispered back.

At the end of the performance, I waited in my seat, watching for Catherine and Renee so I could go talk to them.  When I saw them come out from the room behind the altar, I said to Mom and Dad, “I’m going to go say hi to Catherine and Renee.”

“Okay,” Mom replied.  “We’ll wait over here.”

I approached Catherine and Renee; they were with a few of the other performers.  “Greg!” Catherine said as she saw me approach.  She walked up and gave me a hug.  “Meet my friends.  This is Helga; she was my sister when I stayed in Austria.  Helga, this is Greg.  He was one of the people who wrote me letters that year.”

“Oh, yes,” Helga said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I replied.

“And this is David, Matthias, Lisi, and Katharina,” Catherine continued as she introduced me to the rest of the group.

“Hi,” I said as they waved and greeted me in return.

“I’m so glad you could make it!  Thank you very much!”

“I enjoyed it.  You guys are really good.”

“Thanks,” Renee replied.  “I felt like I messed up my part on one song.”

“I didn’t notice,” I told her.  “I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, so if one part is a little bit wrong, I won’t know.”

“That’s what I said!” Catherine exclaimed.  “So have you ever thought about performing in a choir?”

I was not expecting that question.  “Me?” I asked.  “I’m too self-conscious up on stage.  You know that.”

“I think you should try it!  Find a group to sing with in Jeromeville.”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

“It’ll be good for you.”

“So you guys get to sing at a Titans game?  That’s really cool.”

“I know!  A baseball game seems like such an American thing to do.”

“I haven’t been to a game in two years.  I’m still kind of upset at baseball for being on strike last year.  Matt Williams was going to break the home run record.  But I’m sure you guys will have fun.”

“I need to go say hi to some other people, but it was great seeing you!  When do you go back to Jeromeville?”

“End of next week.  September 2.”

“And is that when classes start?  I thought you guys started later?”

“We do.  But my apartment lease starts September 1, and I’m kind of ready to be back up there.”

“That makes sense.  I don’t know if I’ll get to see you again before then, though, since I’ll be busy with these guys for the next week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “If not, I’ll be home for Christmas.”

“Call me before you leave, okay?”

“I will.”

“Bye, Greg.  Thanks again for coming.”  Catherine hugged me.

“Bye,” Renee added.

“See you guys later.  Enjoy the rest of your performances.”

I walked back to the car with Mom and Dad.  “That was really good,” Mom said.  “They’re all really musically talented.”

“I know,” I said.

“Yes,” Dad agreed.

“I know I say this all the time, and I don’t want to bug you, but I always wish you would have stuck with music.  You were always good at playing piano and singing.”

“I guess,” I said.

Mom started talking about something else as Dad pulled out of the parking lot, which was good because I was tired of this topic.  I took piano lessons when I was a kid.  I quit when I was 10.  I was too concerned with my image, and playing piano did not seem cool to me.  But also, more importantly, I got tired of Mom making a big deal of my piano playing and making me perform every time we had company or relatives come over.  I was too self-conscious to perform music in front of people.  I love music, but as for performing, I was content to sing along in the car while driving alone.

But Mom and Catherine had basically told me the same thing tonight, that I should get into music again.  I could not even remember if Catherine had ever heard me sing.  And three years earlier, in tenth grade, I had attended our school production of The Sound of Music (Catherine played the Mother Abbess), and one of my teachers, Mrs. Norton, asked me why I wasn’t up there singing and performing.  I knew Mrs. Norton had never heard me sing.  It was strange.  Did Catherine and Mrs. Norton see something in me that I did not see in myself?  Was being part of a choir singing in front of a group something that I could do?

As I sat in the car headed north on Highway 11 on the way home from the Voices of Austria concert, I had no idea that that question would be definitively answered less than two months later.

voices of austria
A big thank you to Catherine for finding this t-shirt from the tour at her parents’ house.